The first thing I am aware of is the contrast between a cold cloth on my head and the trickle of warm broth between my lips. I swallow and try to open my eyes, but it is as if stones lay upon the lids. "Herman?" I rasp.
"Hush, now, Hildebrand. Herman has gone to the forest for wood."
"Yes, it is me."
I try again to open my eyes, succeeding just enough to spot the flickering firelight that corresponds to the crackling I hear. I try to lift my hand to rub my eyes, but it, too, is like trying to budge a boulder.
Then a warm moist cloth is gently removing the crust from my eyes, and I see your gentle smile. "Praise be to God that you have come back to us!"
"You have been wandering in fever for five days. It has been all I could do to get this broth in to you."
I attempt to sit up, but barely manage to lift my head. You slip your arm under the furs beneath my shoulders, raising me, and pushing a sack of straw behind me so I am propped at an angle.
Fear grips my heart and I grab your hand. "My baby?"
"He is fine." You turn to his small pallet, lifting him and placing him in my lap. "By God's grace I have had enough milk for both him and little Ruth, and thankfully he did not refuse to suckle."
I gaze down at his big blue eyes and start to remember.
Despite the ravaging illness, we had all gathered at the Great Hall for the winter feasting. After all, it might only be our entreaties to Freyr as we touched the sacrificed boar that would rid us of it.
You, Gregorius and Ruth had come, though you still would not join in the rituals. As you had shortly after your arrival a year ago, you kept trying to tell us of your foreign Jesus, and that he had been the only sacrifice that was needed. The evergreens, you said, reminded you of his coming to bring everlasting life, and the light of the Jol log spoke to you of this Jesus being light to a dark world. Some of our people wondered, though, if it was your strange ways that had displeased the gods and brought the sickness.
I did not want to tell Herman that we should return home, though I ached so much I could barely hold my month-old Detlef. He did not notice, feasting and trading stories with the men, but you sent Gregorius to point out the splotches on my skin. It took both of them to carry me home, while somehow you managed two babies.
The last thing I remember was you tucking me in to the furs and wiping my brow with a cold cloth.
"Do you think I may live?"
"By God's grace, I believe you will."
"Did my sisters help you?"
A flicker of sadness crosses your face. "Herman asked them to come--they had seen you carried out of the hall--but they would not."
Detlef starts to fuss, but I am powerless to help. After feeding him and Ruth, you add some barley to the broth, simmer it for a bit, then feed me as well.
Herman and Gregorius return, bearing wood and water hauled from the Eder. They are astounded to see me sitting up. Is that a tear I see in Herman's eye?
I grow stronger each day. We are both relieved when Detlef is finally able to elicit milk from me once more.
But you look very pale--no--is that a blotch I see? I touch your neck and feel the swollen gland.
Our roles reverse, but my ministrations are fruitless.
The ground is nearly too frozen for Gregorius and Herman to dig.
I weep as they lower you, promising to care for Ruth until she is weaned, and watch her as the men work.
Gregorius fashions a cross of wood, carving your name upon it.
As I nurse the babies, I listen as the men talk by the fire.
"Gregorius, when our own folk turned a blind eye to our troubles, your Dorcas came, giving her life for my family. Is this the kind of sacrifice you mean when you speak of Jesus?"
"Yes, Herman, it is."
"Now that is a sacrifice I can truly believe in--a much better reason to celebrate this season."
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