Chapter 5: Illness

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic

Reads: 97

Fortisa swung her sword.

The cloaked figure leaped only a pinch away from the blade.

“Whoa! You almost cut me in two!  I heard your sobs...probably should have spoken first.  I'm sorry I startled you...should have known better.  Do you…need help?”

Fortisa sprang away from the man.

“Who are you?  What do you want?  Step in the light." 

The concealed torso moved into the dim illumination from the windows.

“I was told I might find lodging here. The Inn is full. I saw the light…here…decided to stop. As I approached I heard you crying.   Can I help you?”

“At what price?”

“No price.”

Fortisa stared at the stranger. His hood hid his face.  

“Let me see you…remove the hood.”

“Maiden. I do not show my face, except to those closest to me.”

He kept his head slightly bowed.

“Why – you disfigured?  Is that a mask you wear, too?”

“In a manner of speaking, I am...flawed.  Yes, you do see a mask, as well.  Your name, Maiden?  I am called Michail.”

Fortisa hesitated for a moment.

“I am called…Fortisa…for now.”

She held her sword high.

“For now?”

“For now. There’s a sick woman inside and a dead man in the barn.  Illness...and death here. Trying to figure it out.  Don't prick either my temper or patience!”

Michail stepped cautiously inside the one-room cottage, keeping a wide distance between himself and Fortisa.  Except for a smaller spare room, only one large room.  He looked about. Frowning, he gazed at the woman in the bed. The stench hit his nostrils. He held up the sleeve of his cloak to his nose.

“The woman needs cleaning. We need to pull the mattress out and tomorrow burn it. Is there fresh straw anywhere?”

“The sun set before I could look around. I started a fire. William and I...

"William?"

"My horse...and I dragged the dead man’s body into the barn. That’s as far as I got.”

“Are there animals in there?  The barn?  Anywhere?”

“No.  None that I could see.”

“Woman,” Michail remarked staring at Fortisa’s raised sword. “I will not hurt you. I can help. Is there water anywhere?  Woman...I can help...you.”  He repeated.

Fortisa gaped at him, not trusting the cloak.  Anything can be hidden beneath a cloak.

“Weapons.  You carrying weapons?"

"My bow and dagger.  The bow is with my horse.  My dagger..."

He opened his long cloak revealing the sheath and jeweled crossguard.  Seeing her anxiety a little at a time he removed the dagger from his belt and placed it on the ground.  

"I have no desire to hurt you.  I can help...if you let me."

"The bow.  What about the bow?"

"On my horse." 

"To answer your question...I don’t know about the straw.  I will handle it.  I haven’t looked yet. I...”

Michail sighed. He took a deep breath. 

"I know that blade of yours can create halves of me.  With all due respect, I'm rather attached to, and like all my parts.  I placed my dagger before you in good faith.  Do you want my bow, too?  Then the question is...can I trust you?"

Fortisa lowered the sword a little.  

"Your bow.  Get it.  Place it with the dagger.  Know, I am watching you.  Any odd movement, I will...kill you!"

Michail felt instantly sorry for her.  So much mistrust.  He called to his horse.

"Dolce, come." 

Dolce?

"What does that mean...your horse's name?"

"Sweet-tempered, gentle."

Dolce approached.  Fortisa raised her sword higher this time.  She gripped it with a tense fist. Michail slowly reached for the bow and quiver hanging from the saddlehorn.

"Careful, I can throw this and not miss,"  Fortisa warned.

"I believe you."

Michail lay the bow and quiver next to the dagger.  Though the hood hung low, he could see her.  She reminded him of a terrified rabbit caught in a snare.

“Woman, we waste time.  If it is your desire to murder me, go ahead.  I offer you my help in these unfortunate circumstances. Please, find clean garments in that other room for the woman. We’ll burn what she is wearing in the morning, too.”

Michail stepped towards the bed.  Fortisa followed a few steps behind.  She did not lower the sword.  He bent over to listen to the woman’s breathing.

“She’s near death.  Her breaths...shallow.  The ashen pallor of her skin...I believe she will be dead by morning." 

Fortisa listened to him, then disappeared into the spare room.  She approached a large leather trunk.  Shadows flickered on the walls.

Michail stepped towards her, carefully avoiding any quick movements...and opened the thick lid.  As his eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, he saw a stub of a candle next to the trunk.  Fortisa watched as he grabbed it.

"We'll see better with more light."

He left the room and lit the candle from the fireplace.

“Stay arm's length away from me."  Fortisa placed the sword on the floor.

"You should wash your hands after touching the dead man.  Come, I have a flask of water on my saddle."

Fortis glared at him.  Treachery or no? 

Michail left the room moments later returning with a flask.  He opened it.

"Hold out your hands.  I see the sword.  I won't risk losing my fingers if not my arm here."

Fortisa opened her hands out to him. 

"Rub your hands together while I pour."

Fortisa obeyed as the water flowed from the flask.  Michail then poured water onto the handle of the sword.

"Don't touch anything in here with your bare hands or you will have to wash them again.  Do you own gloves?"

Drying out.

"Didn't think to pack any."

Michail stepped outside the room only to reappear within a few moments.

"Here, take these."  He tossed her a pair of his leather gloves.

Fortisa thrust her hands into them.  Michail watched her poke through the contents of the trunk.

"Some clothing here. That’s good.”  She remarked, wary of Michail’s movements.  

"A lot of blankets...horse blankets?  Odd."

Michail raised his candle to better see what provisions the room held.  He pried open the tops of several wooden barrels in the room.

“Dried wheat and barley. At least, we'll eat later.  Fortisa, I will go search for water. You find some pots to heat with…please. The woman needs washing…her clothing disregarded, and she, fed…maybe…somehow. At the very least she needs water, too.”

Michail left the cottage.  Fortisa found several cooking kettles.  She plucked a burning stick from the fire and ran out to Michail.  His bow, quiver, and dagger lay on the ground.

He could have snatched those.  How did I forget?  Stay focused...think!  

“Here. To help you see.  I hope you find water right off.  Take this. It won’t burn long though.”  

She passed the crude torch to Michail.

She wanted to tell him to be careful, but the words stuck in her mouth. Michail nodded and disappeared into the darkness.  Fortisa watched the bobbing torch as Michail and Dolce departed.

She returned to the storage room.  Within the trunk, she found several dressing gowns.  They were rough and simply made, as if the maker didn't want to take time with them.  Another trunk, hidden in the shadows, behind the barrels, revealed a number of additional horse blankets.

Odd...did they raise horses?

 Fortisa returned to the woman’s bedside.

“Please don’t die. I’m so sorry this happened to you…and him.”

“I need to find some fresh straw. I dread the barn.”  She stoked the fire and added a few more logs.

Fortisa sat down for a moment on a stool near the fireplace...her thoughts, racing, not sure what to think about Michail.  She held up her hands to her head and closed her eyes.  My head is pounding!

Where's my sword?  I'm slipping...so tired.

She stood up and peeked into the spare room.  The sword lay on the floor.  She retrieved it and returned to the stool.  

I don't remember dropping it on the floor.

As she stared into the flames her head nodded. She tried for a moment to force herself awake, but the need for sleep won out. Her sword slipped from her hand.  Her head bowed between her legs.

The noise of clinking cookware woke her. Startled, she shot up losing her balance.  Michail dropped a pot and caught her, stepping over the sword.  She swayed as she sat down again.

“Yes, I know, I violated your arm's length rule just then.  I could have let you fall into the fireplace, instead."

Fortisa shook her head trying to dislodge the sleep from her brain. She noticed that Michail filled two large pots with water and another with water and grain.  They hung on black metal rods in the hearth.  She ignored his comment.

“I can make gruel for us and feed the horses with the grain. Not the tastiest, of course, but, at least hunger won't torment us…and the horses will eat!”

“The woman? The bed?”  Fortisa spoke in a wide yawn.

“I…thought it best to let you catch a few moments of rest. I lifted the woman out of the bed and dragged the bed and the mattress outdoors with all the soiled blankets. All of that we'll burn in the morning.”

“All?”

“Yes…all.  We don’t know anything about this illness.  We could catch it. We may have already caught it. There's a sickness going around. I’ve heard of it in my travels. It shows no mercy. This could be it.”

Michail glanced sidways at Fortisa.  “I will step outside and keep our horses company. Change the woman’s dressing gown and wash her as best you can. Do you have a change of clothing?”

“Yes...from the trunk."

“Good. You will need to bathe afterwards and change your clothing, too. We will boil the clothes.  I’ll get more water.”

Michail closed the door behind him.

I’ve never washed anyone but myself and William…don’t think… just…get it done.

The woman lay on the floor in place of the soiled bed. Fortisa filled a basin with water from one of the pots. She hastily pulled the clothing off the frail woman and washed her. The stench of sickness and excrement repulsed her. Many times Fortisa emptied and refilled the basin and wrung out the washcloth.

Your skin is so hot! I’m sorry. 

 Fortisa finished the task by pouring water over the woman’s hair, soaking the floor.  She mopped up the puddle with one of the extra horse blankets.

“I hope you don’t remember this, if you live.  I'm sorry.”

Fortisa dressed the woman in the gown, pulling her away from the wet area.  She spread out a clean horse blanket, rolled the woman onto it, and draped a blanket over her.

Why are there no horses here? Were they stolen?  Did they die?  Run away?  So many horse blankets. 

One of the large pots boiled.  Fortisa stared into the mesmerizing bubbles.

I hope Dragon hasn't drowned himself.

Michail pushed open the door with his boot, his arms burdened with filled water gourds.

“She’s so hot, Michail! Maybe we should rest her in a cold stream?  Wherever you found water?”

Michail stood in quiet thought for several moments.

"I think...the shock of cold water might directly kill her.”  Michail took one end of the blanket the woman was laying upon and pulled her near the doorway.  “Perhaps...cooler air would help. The floor is cooler here, too."  He removed the blanket Fortisa placed upon her.

"Fortisa, you're next. Wash. Change your clothes. Get them in the boiling water.”

Fortisa looked stunned. 

“Woman, what are you waiting for?”

Michail stammered, "I’m sorry. I’m…”

He grabbed a blanket and found a couple of nails in the beams to hang a privacy curtain for her.

“Sorry. I’m used to traveling alone. I…”

Ignoring him, Fortisa snatched up the women's soiled garments and stomped outside.  She tossed the armful of now rags, on top of the mattress and bed frame.

A glimmer of a smile teased about his face as he listened to Fortisa's boots stomp into the cottage.  She reached for a washbasin for herself  and filled it with clean boiling water and stepped behind the curtain. Michail poured a bit of water from one of the gourds into a mug for the woman. Fortisa stepped out from the curtain. Michail looked up at her confused.

“Forgot my change of clothing.  Sorry.”  She grabbed the clean gown and vanished behind the curtain. 

Michail stepped into the spare room and rummaged through the trunk. He found a set of spare clothes for himself.  A shirt he tore into strips.

Michail wrapped his hands with the strips of cloth and sat down next to the woman.  He cradled her head as best he could with one of his hands, dunked a napkin with the other hand in the mug of water, then pressed the napkin against her lips.

“When did you drink last?”  He whispered.

He pressed the napkin to the woman’s lips repeatedly, coaxing thin rivulets of water to enter her mouth.  Then, he paused.  He shifted his and her positions, "Swallow, please swallow."

Fortisa emerged from behind the curtain carrying her clothes. “I’m hungry. Are you hungry, Michail?”

“Yes, but I can’t eat anything until I know this woman has some water, first.”

Fortisa dumped her clothes to the boiling pot.  Finding a large stick she stirred the clothing. 

"What did you do with the gloves?"

“Tossed them into the pot.  Should I stir this gruel, or whatever it is you are boiling?”

"Yes, but not with that stick.  Fetch another.  Pull my gloves out first, somehow.  Put them near the fire to dry."

Fortisa glared at him.

Michail ignored her. 

The horses snorted.

“Fortisa, I don’t want to leave the horses, outside. I don’t want to put them in the barn, either.” Michail murmured. He cleared his throat, “I'm thinking...of moving out everything we can from that spare room, and putting the horses in there. At least for tonight.”

After depositing Michail's gloves on the hearth Fortisa dropped that stirring stick. A moment later she carried items out of the spare room and lined them up in the main room along the wall.

Michail cleared his throat. “I will move the heavier items.  Leave them for me.” 

Fortisa pretended she didn't hear him. 

Michail continued to drench the cloth and press it to the woman’s lips. He studied Fortisa, wondering what she was thinking...wondering what in her life made her into the woman he now shared this cottage with, wondering what force or forces threw them together.

Michail gently lowered the woman’s head to the floor. He stood up, stretched, then stepped into the spare room. 

“You are a worker, Fortisa!  You don't like to accept help, do you?  Please, go stir our supper.  I don't want it to stick to the pot and burn.  I will finish here."

Michail emptied the spare room until no extra space in the main room existed to store anything.  Fortisa returned to the cooking kettles, stirring the contents of each one.

"Don't get the stirring sticks mixed up!"  

"As if!" She murmured.

Michail heard her and smiled. He stepped outdoors.  A moment later he returned with their horses. They followed him like dogs. Fortisa stepped out of the way, giving the animals friendly pats as they ambled past her.

She glanced around the room. She grabbed the bowls and spoons from their resting place on a shelf then dunked them into the pot of boiling water that wasn't boiling the clothes.

I am so hungry…and tired. I could just drop!

She plucked the bowls and spoons out of the scalding pot burning herself in the process.  She filled the bowls with gruel and placed them on the table.  

“Come eat, Michail. You must be hungry!”

Michail approached the table. “Famished, actually!  I want to wash and change, first.  A little honey would make this easier to swallow.  If you go into my saddlebag, you'll find a vial of honey.  Also, a spare cloak.  If you would..."

Michail filled a washbasin for himself and stepped behind the privacy curtain.

"Would you throw those other clothes to me?  I don't want to touch them without washing first." 

Fortisa found the vial of honey and threw the cloak and other clothes over the curtain to Michail.  She added a spoonful of honey to the gruel.  She winced, expecting the worst.

"How is it?"

"I've eaten better.  I prefer my gruel cooked with milk, not water...I'm not complaining.  It's hot...I'm hungry."

After several moments, Michail emerged in different clothes.  He dumped the soiled garments into the pot of boiling water then sat down across from Fortisa.  He  bowed his head for several moments.  She watched him.

"You pray?"

"You could say that.  You...don't?"

"No...not really...sometimes, maybe."

"Thank you for that...was that a clarification...I think?"  

"The Friors do, too...to...The Healer. You pray to The Healer?"

"Yes...you know the Friors?"

"I live with them.  I'm looking for Frior Andrew."

Momentarily Fortisa stopped eating.  Maybe that was too much information to give.  Too late now.

Michail raised his eyebrows at this revelation. 

“Do you know...you scrunch your nose? I’ve seen you do that a few times.”  Michail spoke gently, trying to disengage from the disheartening circumstances they found themselves in.

Fortisa glanced at his almost totally hidden face.  The hood of his cloak hung so low, too close to the bowl, revealing only his scarred chin. Then she saw his hands...really saw his hands...and the scars.  This information made her head pound all the more.  Too much information.

Fortisa again fought against her closing eyes.  Just before she finished her honey-gruel, she dropped the spoon from her hand. Michail leaped from his chair and grabbed the neck of her gown before her head thumped the table. Gently he let her head rest next to her bowl.

Michail disappeared into the spare room.  After several moments he emerged carrying blankets over his arm. He draped a heavy woolen blanket over Fortisa and another he spread onto the floor. He folded another into a pillow. Gently he lifted her from the chair and placed her upon the blanket, then placed the makeshift pillow under her head.

"You are…something, young woman!"

Michail knelt beside the sick woman.  Her chest barely rose and fell.  Singing in a low and soft tone he stetched his hands upward. Before sleep overtook him, he wrung out the boiled clothing and draped the items over the chairs and table and all the wall hooks for them to dry.

He pulled out a stick from the fire and walked outside, trying not to spread sparks.  He left the door open.

By the light of the torch, Michail explored the barn area.  The rear door opened to an expansive hayfield.  He saw it earlier searching for water.  Michail reached for a rusted sickle hanging on a spike.  He focused upon the terrain behind and in front of him.  He wanted a memory of the surroundings before the torch burned to the last spark.

With easy swipes Michail cut the tall grass with then filled his arms with the fragrant hay.  Michail carried the load back to the cottage.  He repeated this until he felt there would be enough to satisfy the horses for the night. 

After feeding the animals, and filling a water trough for them, he partially closed the door, placing a chair before it...the smell.  Not as overpowering as earlier, yet, still fouling the air.  He fell asleep on the hard floor...between the two women.  Michail slept well for a few hours, then he awoke...uneasy.  He rose up quietly and observed the sick woman.  No change.  

He glanced at Fortisa.  Her chest in contrast rose and fell with vigor.  She murmured in her sleep, but he couldn't make out the details.  

Then he remembered...his bow, quiver, and dagger.  These were the reasons for the unsettled feeling.  Not wise. Not wise at all.  He tiptoed outdoors and retrieved his items.  Then, the problem, if she saw they were missing, she would react.  He had a vision of being severed in half, in his sleep, whether the cuts struck horizontally or vertically didn't matter...certainly not the demise he desired.

As quietly as he could, he tiptoed back inside, placed the items next to her sword, checked on the horses, added wood to the fire, then returned to his blanket.  He considered Fortisa as she slept.  He closed his eyes promising himself not to second guess her.

 

 

 

 


Submitted: September 09, 2019

© Copyright 2021 Elise Pannon. All rights reserved.

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