Northwestern England, 1198 AD
"Will she live?"
He said the words in a whisper, not knowing why it meant so much to him, but recognizing that it did.
"She may," old Wenda, the village healer, replied. "Or she may not. 'Tis not in my hands any longer."
William DeSeverin, now called Royce, stood by the blazing hearth in his small cottage and watched as Wenda finished sewing the unconscious woman's face. His gut gripped as though he were some untried boy rather than the tournament- and battle-tested warrior he was. He could not isolate the reason the sight of blood and some stitching bothered him so and that disconcerted him even more. Hushing the whimpers of his hound, he moved closer to survey the extent of the woman's injuries.
No wonder Wenda could not answer him. William had hoped that once the blood was cleared away, Wenda would declare her easily healed. 'Twas not so after all. He grimaced at the sight of the injuries this woman had sustained-- a broken leg, stab wounds on arms and hands, defensive from the look of them and some very deep, and from her labored breathing, broken or badly bruised ribs. He shook his head and offered a silent prayer for she was closer to death than he had first imagined.
"Should we move her to the keep or to your cottage?" William asked. The healer's doubts unnerved him. If Wenda did not think she would live, then how could he have hope?
"Nay, Royce. I fear she would not live even the short journey there. Mayhap in a few days. . . " Wenda did not finish the words, but William heard them clearly--if she lived.
The old woman stood and stretched her back, rubbing at its base probably to relieve the hours spent hunching over to repair the slashes, cuts, bruises and broken bones. She had accompanied him without question or hesitation when he roused her from her sleep. If she had thought that finding him, the loner, the outsider, at her door long after the moon's rising was strange, she said it not. She had simply gathered her supplies and followed him into the night.
He stood nearby, close enough to aid her but far enough to be out of her way during her work. Now, she gathered the soiled cloths into a basket and stood.
"A fever will come," she said without looking at him. Passing her gaze over the woman once more, she shook her head. "Someone filled with anger did this. A terrible anger."
That someone wanted her dead was clear. The unconscious woman had cheated death this long, but William suspected that it would be much longer before she could claim victory.
After giving him instructions, Wenda waved away his offer of a ride back to her cottage and left with the promise of an early return. William sat next to the pallet and leaned against the wall, settling down for the rest of the night. The only sound was the crackling of some peat on the hearth. As he dozed off, he strained to hear the shallow rasping breaths that the stranger took. Although sunrise was a few hours away, it promised to be a long night.
The wet, rough tongue sliding across his chin startled him for he did not believe he would sleep at all when he closed his eyes. Pushing away the hound's face, William looked over at his guest. He feared that her lack of movement or sound meant she had lost the valiant battle she'd fought over this last fortnight. From his place next to the door, he could not tell if she breathed or not.
Rolling to his feet, he made it to her side in a few steps. Touching the back of his hand to her uninjured, well, less bruised cheek, the coolness of her skin made him smile. The horrible, life-draining fever had broken. A soft sigh confirmed that she had made it through the worst of her recovery. Watching the movement of the sheet as her chest rose and fell under it, William knew that she faced many more days and weeks of pain before she could truly be declared healed. But, with the fever gone, she stood a good chance of making it through that recovery.
Worried that her trashing movements through the night may have opened her deeper wounds, he gently checked to see if any of her wounds bled. He mumbled a quick thanks to heaven as he saw that all the stitches looked intact. Tucking the sheet higher over her shoulders, he left the cottage to handle his own morning needs and to bring back fresh water from the stream near by. The hound nipped at his heels and followed him down the path.
After dipping his head in the icy water for a few minutes, William felt clearer-minded and ready to face the day. The night had been a tough one; his mystery guest had become almost violent, thrashing and crying out for the first time since he'd found her. He did not know if this was a good sign or not, but he would share the information with Wenda when she arrived for her daily visit.
Twisting his hair to remove most of the water from it, William pulled it back and tied it with a leather cord. Even after three years he was still unused to having his hair this long. But, if it made him less obvious, he would continue with it. And the beard he had forced himself to leave in place hid the gash on his neck. Better to be unremarkable in coloring or appearance than draw the wrong attention.
Completing his ablutions, he filled a bucket with clean water and returned to his home. He would wait until he tried to coax some of Wenda's broth into his guest before changing his tunic. If her strength was returning, it could be a messy affair.
Although he had lost most of his accent, he could not rid himself of the fastidiousness in grooming that had been the standard as he grew to manhood in Eleanor of Aquitaine's court. Though generations separated the French origins from most of the current border nobles, he had been but a few years removed from the people and places of his upbringing. 'Twould take more time than that to lose his habits.
No, he would not allow his thoughts to follow that path. There was no good in it, only regrets and recrimination. Nothing could change his past. Nothing.
Shaking his head at the wanderings of his mind and snapping his fingers behind him to gain the dog's attention, he carried the water into the small hut and prepared some broth for the unconscious woman. She had not moved at all since he'd left, so he warmed the clear soup and brought it closer to her. Then he carefully lifted her up and slid behind her. He cushioned her bruised body with his and cradled her head on his shoulder.
It took time to coax the warm liquid into her mouth without losing most of it on both of them. If he gauged it correctly, she had swallowed more this time than even last night. That had to be a good thing, didn't it? He would ask Wenda when she arrived. Bloody hell! He felt no more at ease in her care now than when he first found her bleeding to death near his door almost two weeks ago. Luckily, Wenda had found one of the village girls to stay here during the day and care for the stranger. Although he would most likely not give voice to his doubts, he would take all the help offered in this endeavor.
Men were not supposed to do this, he was certain of it, for he was more comfortable fighting a dozen well-armed warriors than sitting at bedside tending this wounded woman. He hoped she would waken soon so that she could be moved to the keep or to Wenda's and he would be done playing nursemaid. Yet, even as the thoughts crossed his mind, he knew he lied to himself.
Something had called him to the little-used path where she lay dying in a pool of her own blood. Something grabbed his soul in the night when she seemed to turn into his palm as he soothed her flaming brow. Something gave her the strength to fight death's grip and struggle back to life and he felt powerless next to it.
William DeSeverin, the man who had died on the field of honor three years before, only knew that he was part of her fight for life and nothing he did or thought could change that.
* * *
Deep, searing like flames through her, tearing at her strength until she could fight no longer.
At first, she tried to struggle against the pain, to claw her way up through the darkness, towards the light she could feel at the edges of her existence. Then, she realized that in the darkness was numbness. And numbness was relief from the ripping waves of anguish that seemed to have no end. So, for a while she sought the comfort that the darkness offered.
Then, a voice pierced the darkness. A soothing, warm voice that called to her, urging her to fight, telling her not to surrender to the darkness. Sometimes the tone was soft and sometimes powerful, but never could she ignore it. Although there was no pain in the bliss of the darkness, the voice called her from it and when she had gathered enough strength, she followed it.
She knew not how long she had remained within the darkness or how long her journey through the pain took. She simply listened for that voice to guide her, to give her courage and to sustain her when fear attacked her resolve.
Then, at some time in her struggles, the urge to know and to find the source of the voice overwhelmed her and she forced her eyes to open. As she did, even more pain coursed through her body and she hissed with the intensity of it. Deciding she had not the strength or courage needed yet, she slid back into the darkness and waited.
Had she made a sound? William moved closer and drew the covers more securely around her. A chill not uncommon for this time of year had spread through the area and he remembered Wenda's warnings to keep the woman warmed enough. As he brought the lamp nearer to her, he saw no sign of waking on her face. If her breathing had changed, it was even once more.
He paced the small room. It had been three days since her fever had broken and Wenda told him that every day she spent in this limbo was an indication that she would not recover. A deep sadness filled him at the thought that she would simply drift off into death without him even knowing her name or her story.
'Twas at times like this that memories of his sister Catherine came to mind. There were days and nights at the convent in Lincoln when he thought she would simply give up her hold on life. The good sisters who cared for her urged him to speak to her, even in her unconscious state, and to talk to her of things mundane and comforting. And he did. . . he spoke of happier, carefree times when she was but a child in a household and family that loved her. He spoke of her dreams and urged her to fight. Recent letters passed to him from the convent spoke of her recovery.
So, William found himself using the same tones and even the same words each night before he sought his own rest. He spoke to this woman, called her to fight and to survive. And for the first time since he'd disappeared from the court in England three years before, he allowed himself to care what happened in his life.
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