A/N: Okay, I acknowledge the fact that this title has probably been used for many other fics covering the same basic topic. I'm sorry! It's a good title! Anyway, this is my first long TP piece in quite some time. This will be FOUR CHAPTERS, chronicling Daine's struggle with unicorn fever. All of those little moments that are mentioned in the books but happened in the betweentimes... they're like ice cream and candy to a ficcer!
So, please enjoy and review. Lots of characters are featured. I will give an extra disclaimer: I know a lot of people (myself included) write angsty Numair-struggling-with-his-love-for-Daine during the time between Emperor Mage and Realms of the Gods. BUT, in fact, he doesn't realize he's in love until the beginning of Realms. TP states it pretty explicitly! So even though the feeling and the struggle is still there in my fic, he doesn't acknowledge it and angst about it, really. Sorry if anyone finds that disappointing!
Three more chapters to go!
Characters: Daine, Numair, Thayet, Jon, Onua, Baird, Kitten, Alanna
Time: Between Emperor Mage and Realms of the Gods
Disclaimer: Everything you recognize belongs to Tamora Pierce, not me.
Daine had been working hard all day - first early in the morning with Numair in their regular lessons practicing her array of skills (she didn't much need the wild magic lessons anymore, and they both knew it, but neither ever said anything because it was such a habit to be in each other's company), then in the stables until lunch with Stefan and Onua because a few of the horses had started to seem off-color. After lunch she ran with Cloud and the Seventh Rider Group on patrol, played with Kitten, tended to her woodland friends who had been attacked by immortals (that had been hard: the tetchier ones, covered in blood and so understandably nervous, scratched her quite a bit as she tried to heal them), then helped the trainee Riders clean up.
Yet now, at dinner with Numair, the king and queen, Gareth the Younger, Onua, Buri, Sarge, and many of the Queen's Riders, she stared at her plate – steamed vegetables and grains mixed with chicken, warm potatoes with goat's cheese, and some fresh fruit on the side – and suddenly felt like she wanted to retch. Just the thought of eating something – anything – made her stomach roll. Her head throbbed as she pushed the plate away.
"Daine, what's wrong?" said Numair at once, seated next to her. Queen Thayet, across from her, looked up and frowned; Onua, on her other side, turned around sharply.
"It's nothing," Daine muttered, hating the feeling of so many pairs of eyes. She rubbed her temples. "I'm just a little tired, is all. I had a long day."
"Usually when you're tired, you eat like a horse to get your strength up again," Onua commented from her left.
Thayet, ever the mother, stretched across the table in a most un-queen-like manner to place the inside of her wrist on Daine's forehead. "You're definitely warm," she said. "You should go see Duke Baird."
"No, really – I'm fine," she insisted. She stood up, and it took great effort to stay on her feet, the world was whirling so much. She blinked open her eyes, staring around at them all, every face on hers now. "I'll just go get some rest. Sorry, Numair, I don't think I can study tonight - "
"I really think you should go see Duke Baird - " Thayet began.
"I agree," Numair said emphatically. "Daine, I'll go with you."
"No," she said, irritated at their mollycoddling. She wasn't a baby to be rushed to the healer for every little thing! "I just need a little sleep is all, I promise. I'll see you tomorrow."
Before any more of them could protest, she turned and left the hall, heading outside to her room under the Rider barracks. As she crossed the courtyard, every step became harder and harder to place. Stop moving, she commanded the earth, as if it would have any effect. If anything, the spinning got worse. Her eyes started to blur out of focus, her head throbbed, and the last thing she knew was a sharp pain in her knees as she crashed to ground, blacking out.
Back in the dining hall, Numair could only pick at his food, his head full of thoughts of Daine. The others looked reasonably nervous too, and the friendly chatter of a few moments ago had subsided into worried murmuring.
Daine's smart, he told himself. She's right, sometimes people just come down with little things. She'd tell me if it were serious. But even in his head, the words sounded empty. He knew only too well how stubborn she was and how much she hated having others fuss over her well-being. I can look after myself! she'd snap.
Suddenly a loud noise from outside the windows made them all look up. It seemed as if every sparrow and starling roosting in the eaves had taken flight at once, squawking and chirping.
"Something spook them?" asked Sarge in his deep, rumbling voice.
Dogs from all over the palace began to bark. In the distance, Numair heard the agitated whinnies of horses all the way from the stables. Realization clicked in his mind.
"Daine," he said, leaping to his feet and tearing out of the room. Vaguely he registered Onua close behind. Numair knew beyond doubt that something was wrong. Nothing but a threat to Daine could have sent all the palace animals into a frenzy like that. A dark shape lay in the middle of the courtyard. Numair dropped to his knees beside it.
A number of dormice, a fox, a certain pygmy marmoset, and a baby dragon had beaten him to her, and Numair thought he heard an angry pony outside the courtyard gates. Kitten whistled anxiously in Daine's ear, while Zek buried himself in her hair; the other animals were fidgety. Gently Numair nudged them aside so he could lift Daine into his arms. Her head fell limply to one side, exposing her pale neck, which Numair immediately checked for a pulse. It was definitely there, but her skin was hot and sweaty even in the cool evening air.
"Something's wrong," he said, hearing his voice emerge tight and flat. "She's not just warm, she's burning up. No fever moves that fast, and if she blacked out - "
It was easier if he focused on the mechanics of disease and treatment, listing all the books he'd ever read on serious maladies and symptoms in his mind. It was not easier if he looked at her face, eyes closed, cheeks flushed, skin damp.
"I'll go get Baird." Jon and Thayet had arrived. The king whisked away with a swish of his cloak. Onua ran to the gate to soothe a frantic Cloud before letting the pony inside to see her friend.
"I'm sorry, Cloud," Numair said, watching the pony sniff at Daine's cheek. "If I knew what was wrong, I'd tell you. We'll all do our best to keep her healthy."
Cloud huffed. Numair had no wild magic, but even he caught the pony's meaning. You better. She touched Daine with her nose again. At that, Daine stirred a little, but didn't open her eyes.
"Did you try giving her some of your strength?" Numair asked. Cloud nodded, a skill she'd picked up from so many years with Daine. "Then this must be something that affects humans, not animals, if your strength doesn't help her."
"Should we try to move her?" Thayet said.
"I don't know. I don't want to risk anything till Baird's here."
Absently he began to stroke her hair away from her face, careful not to upset Zek's perch. She'll be fine. She will. She has to be, he thought, determinedly ignoring any other possibility. Onua laid a strong hand on his shoulder, for which he was grateful.
"Let me see her."
"Thayet said she was barely warm just a few minutes ago," Jon said, accompanied by Thayet's frantic nodding.
Baird had arrived. As he knelt, Numair passed Daine to him, though he kept hold of her hand. Zek scrambled up to Numair's shoulder. He watched nervously as the duke and chief healer checked Daine's forehead, temples, lymph nodes, and heartbeat. Baird worked briskly and efficiently. Green light radiated from his fingertips wherever he touched her. Numair burned with questions, desperate to know what he thought, and if she would be all right, but he knew better than to distract a healer at work.
At last Duke Baird spoke, quick and sharp. "Her fever is higher than any I've ever seen. We need to get her under heat and blankets, and soon. Let's get her to the infirmary, as fast as possible. Keep her head still."
Immediately Numair scooped Daine into his arms and stood up, cradling her head against his shoulder and tightening his grip under her knees. With a following of both humans and animals, Numair raced to the infirmary as fast as safety would allow, and as soon as he lay Daine down on the cot nearest to the blazing hearth, multiple hands tossed thick wool blankets on top of her. Gently Onua and Thayet pulled them up to the girl's chin. A gangly, blond preteen boy – Duke Baird's son, Nealan, Numair remembered - placed a bowl of hot water on the bedside table. Baird dipped a cloth in the water, wrung it out, and folded it on Daine's forehead.
"We have to sweat out the fever," he said. "Any way to get her warmer would be of help. Nealan, go stoke the fire. Get some cool, not cold, water. She needs liquids to replace the water she'll sweat out."
The blond boy dashed off at once. Numair tore his eyes away from Daine's face at last to study the healer. "Do you know what's wrong with her? What could bring this kind of fever on so fast?"
"I don't know yet," Baird replied solemnly. When Neal returned with cups, he touched Daine's lips to part them and ease the water into her mouth. "There are possibilities, but a fever alone does not tell much. The fact that it progressed so quickly leaves a limited number of options, but… I can't know which, nor how to treat her aside from warming her, until more symptoms appear. If more do."
"It won't be too late?" Numair insisted. Black sparks flew from his hands; his fear was getting the better of him, and he was forgetting to control his Gift.
"Don't harry the man, Numair," Onua snapped. He glared at her, though he knew her irritability was just a manifestation of her worry for Daine. "You know Baird will do all he can."
Despite the roaring fire, the warm towel, and the many blankets, Daine was still shivering. To him, the room was sweltering. Numair took off his cloak and rolled up the sleeves of his thin shirt. One of her hands was sticking out from under the blankets, so Numair sat down in the chair by the bed and took her small hand in his much larger one. "I'm going to stay here," he said.
"Numair - " began Thayet and Onua. He glared at both women, and they fell silent.
"Just don't forget to take care of yourself, too," Jonathan told him. "Your falling ill will do Daine no good."
"Thanks, Jon," Numair said, and he meant it. The king had a very good point. Numair wanted to be there for Daine when she woke. Baird coughed, wiped the sweat from his brow, and turned to the others.
"I'll like to place a bit of healing magic on all of you. If Daine has a disease, not just a fever – I'd like to ward you against something contagious."
Everyone nodded. Numair accepted the magic without complaint.
"She'll be fine, Numair," said Onua gently. "I'll come back first thing in the morning. I had better go calm the horses."
"Last I saw, Sarge and Gary were trying to settle all the dogs and cats and birds in the entire castle," Jon said. "The whole place is in an uproar. What an incredible influence our wildmage has."
"Yes, indeed," said Thayet, watching Daine with worry and affection. "I'll come back in the morning too. If there's no improvement, perhaps we should send word to Alanna."
"Her skills would be welcome," Baird said. He sounded relieved at the suggestion.
Numair listened to the conversation as if it were happening in a very distant corridor, and he could only just hear the echoes. Slowly, one by one, his friends departed. Baird told him, very kindly, that he'd be right next door, and to call if anything changed. Numair nodded mechanically. Then it was just him, Daine, and the heat that was her best chance. Like Baird had done, he opened her lips slightly with his finger, then tipped some water into her mouth.
Sweat ran down his neck, but Numair didn't care. His head was still reeling with the suddenness of it all. Just this morning, she'd been perfectly fine. They'd raced in bird form, tested her ability to shift in quick succession – that had tired her out, but a dip in the cool river in wolf form quickly replenished her energy. Then she'd sensed an eagle overhead of a species that she'd never met before, so she called it over so they could study it for a time. She had been all laughter and determination.
Gods, if you're listening, let this just be a passing weariness, he prayed.
Soft noises at the infirmary door made him turn around. Kitten and the animals had been waiting patiently for the two-leggers to do their work, recognizing how important it was before returning to their friend's side. Now the dormice, the fox, and a few cats they must have picked up along the way crawled under Daine's blanket. They're warming her, Numair realized. Zek settled in the crook of her neck. Kitten, too big, laid down on Numair's feet instead, crooning quietly.
"I know, Kit," he said. "I'm worried too."
For all that he seemed suddenly exhausted, sleep was not a possibility. Not when Daine started muttering and twitching a little, unconscious. Her eyebrows cinched in the middle; she looked pained, and it was like an arrow to Numair's own heart. All he could do was squeeze her hand tighter and pray.
She was in a world of vivid colors and strange shapes, vaguely reminiscent of things she knew, but twisted and distorted somehow. She stood in Tortall's fields, but above her head the sky was cloudy and white like in Snowsdale. An eagle with the steel feathers of a Stormwing zipped overhead, so she started to chase it on foot through trees that were alive with the intent to trip her, through rivers which roared at her from watery jaws. The steel eagle led her to a rocky outcrop that dipped and flung her off like an angry horse.
Screaming as she fell, Daine tried to call on her wild magic to shift into one of People. But it wasn't there. She couldn't find it. All she could do was fall, with steel feathers raining down around her. Her eyes fixed on what was below.
Flames of every color licked and sparked up at her. And yet, close as they were, she kept falling, and never reached them. Some curled up and touched her, copper, black, violet, pink, and green. She saw Numair's face in the flames, wavering, then it turned into Onua's, then ma's. Daine couldn't even close her eyes.
Falling, falling, falling towards the fire…