BOW (Part One)
Ten sacks of grain, a few rare books, some fine cloth, a set of bows, and a stock of pots and pans. Felix’s entire stock, for when they get to… wherever they’re going. Somewhere safe, if that even exists anymore. The war was well behind them now, so all of the Riverwood refugees breathe a little easier. But no one can relax. Not yet. Maybe not ever again.
Felix glances up from his endless counting of one to eight and finds his son Samuel watching him. He’s too thin. His boy is too thin, but what can he do? They were lucky to snatch half a stale loaf of bread off the cart that came down from the fine castle on the hill at dawn. Meridan is the noble name there, or so Felix has heard.
“What is it, Sam?”
“They might buy some books and cloth, up there.” He nods at the lofty keep.
Felix frowns reflexively, but can’t help thinking how it would be nice to have actual money when they reach the next village. The people there might have the coins for book, Lady Meridan definitely has coins for all of them.
“We might as well try,” Sam presses, “I mean, what else do we have to do?”
The pack of refugees will stay out the week in this valley, unless Lady Meridan’s charity wanes sooner. Felix heaves a breath. “We can try.”
Sam smiles wider than he has since the enemy attack. That more than anything gives Felix the strength to stand with him and approach the castle. It takes a little wandering, and he finds himself eyeing the arrow slits with growing anxiety, but they eventually find a servants’ entrance.
Knocks go unanswered, and Felix is on the verge of returning to the camp when the door opens and a maid with a basket emerges. She jumps back in surprise. “Who are you?”
Felix is briefly struck mute as every doubt about this enterprise races through his mind. Samuel steps forward, “My father’s a salesman. We wondered if we could sell some of our wares. Father, show her.”
The maid seems calmed by Sam’s sweetness, and Felix manages to produce some of his wares. She studies them, squinting a bit though she doesn’t look repulsed. “Wait here,” she tells them, and disappears back inside the castle.
Samuel shoots his father a grin. Felix returns a pale imitation.
After a few minutes, the maid reappears and flicks her hand at them. “Come along. Mistress Willow wishes to see you.”
They’re led through stone corridors that slowly gain refinement the deeper they go. They almost trip over their own feet when they step onto plush red carpet. Sam presses his toe into it with curious wonder until the maid coughs and jerks her head forward impatiently. At one point she stops by a door and gives it a few soft knocks, then quickly walks away.
A woman steps out who seems to have a spine made of iron. She stands before Felix and Samuel with her hands clenched together tightly at her stomach. “Well, let’s see then.”
Felix takes out all of his books and cloth, passing what he can’t hold to Sam, who presents them proudly.
Mistress Willow plucks them from Sam’s hand and scrutinizes it, her mouth tightening into a small collection of wrinkles. She hums in a way Felix chooses to believe is positive.
Then a female voice flies down the corridor like an arrow bolt over his shoulder, “Willow! What on Earth are two of the Riverwood people doing in my hall?”
For an instant Mistress Willow’s venerable face resembles that of a nervous child, but she blinks it away. “The man is a salesman, my lady. He has a few things to sell. They seem to be of some quality.”
Felix doesn’t dare move a muscle as the woman who can only be Lady Meridan glides around him to arrive at Mistress Willow’s side. He can’t keep from flinching a bit when she’s followed by another lady. This one’s elaborate gown and intricately styled hair do little to distract from her heavy jaw and small black eyes. Or the fact that she dwarfs Felix in both height and breadth.
“I suppose we might take a look,” Lady Meridan says, “Romilda hasn’t been able to finish her dress in weeks. Gods, will these travel bans ever be lifted? Must vagrants own the roads forever?”
Felix and Samuel continue to act as silent display racks as the cloth undergoes a third inspection.
“Five coppers for the red,” Lady Meridan suggests after a moment.
Samuel responds with the words Felix holds in, “That’s not enough. Our cloth sells for twice that much at the market. M-my lady.”
Lady Meridan simply lifts an eyebrow. “Find a market then. Show them out, Willow.”
Disappointment settles in its usual place in Felix’s stomach. As he takes one last glance at the ladies, he notices Lady Romilda’s gaze is fixed on him. “Mother, does this man remind you of old Theodore?”
Lady Meridan, who has already half-turned to leave, pauses and considers Felix along with her daughter. “Perhaps, in a way.” She smiles wistfully, “I haven’t thought of him in years.”
“How did he die?”
“Oh, an infection of some kind, I don’t recall the details. But it was nice, wasn’t it? To have the hermitage occupied was such a comfort in trying times.” Her wistfulness turns speculative. “I could offer you a place there, salesman.”
Felix blinks and swallows. “Ah…”
“What about me?” Sam asks.
A look of something like pity flits across Lady Meridan’s face. “I’m afraid there’s only room for one in the hermitage. That’s somewhat the point of it. But you… Well, there’s a monastery west of here. I believe the monks have an empty bed. A tithe is going out to them today. You could go along with it.”
Felix stuffs his cloth back into his bag before wrapping a hand around Sam’s shoulder and turning him in the direction of the room Mistress Willow left. He gives Lady Meridan a look he hopes communicates a need for time and walks his son into the room, shutting the door softly behind them.
Sam immediately rounds on him, “No, Father, you can’t.”
“Son, you could be safe. Both of us could be safe,” Felix insists while taking the cloth Sam holds, “No more wandering the roads always looking over our shoulders. No more worrying where our next meal will come from.”
“But I don’t want to be a monk. I want to stay with you!” Tears fill his eyes and he flings his arms around Felix’s waist.
He presses his free hand against Sam’s back and winces at his jutting shoulder blades. “I know. I know, Sam. But, you’ll be cared for there. You’ll grow, and learn. Please, if you get the chance, learn what they can teach you. Will you promise me that?”
For a while the boy can only let out shaky sobs. Felix’s throat aches, but he tries to be strong. “Y-yes, Father. I will.”
“Good. That’s good, son.” They slowly release each other, and Felix wipes Samuel’s tears away and kisses the top of his head. With his heart breaking at his boy’s anguished face, he forces himself to say, “Come on, before she changes her mind.”
“I love you, Father,” Sam mumbles into his chest.
“And I love you,” Felix replies, drawing his free hand over Sam’s curls. Pain spikes as Sam exits ahead of him and he has to look away. That’s when he notices a woman curled up in a curtained window seat, a book resting on her lap while her beautiful blue eyes peer at him. Felix ducks his head and hurries out, deciding his best course is to pretend he never saw her.
“So, what’s your answer?” Lady Meridan asks.
Not trusting his voice to remain steady, Felix just nods.
Lady Meridan smiles, “Excellent. What a treat. Not a moment too soon, either. The messenger is about to leave with the tithe. This way.”
He follows Lady Meridan, Lady Romilda, and Mistress Willow with one hand clenched around his walking staff and the other gripping Sam’s shoulder. They leave the keep and approach a man saddling a horse.
Lady Meridan waves a hand at him. “Jeremiah, a moment please.”
Grief throbs with growing intensity in Felix, blocking out their quiet conversation. All he can do is try to squeeze a lifetime of love into Samuel’s shoulder. He’s not abandoning his son. No, he’s protecting him. He’ll be safe. He’ll have food and shelter, and a bed of his own. He could become a respected man. A learned man. This is for the best.
Lady Meridan is walking away from Jeremiah, saying, “All right, child, onto the horse you go. If you hurry you’ll reach the monastery by nightfall.”
Chin on his chest, Sam gulps and twitches his head up and down. Then he walks forward. One step. Two steps. Felix’s arm stretches and his hand trembles as Samuel takes a third step, and leaves his grasp. Tears mercifully blur the sight of Jeremiah hoisting Samuel up onto the saddle. Every breath drags past the pieces of his heart, but Felix doesn’t quite start weeping. He raises his emptied hand to the shape of Samuel, just before the horse canters away.
Felix scrubs at his eyes, determined to be calm while facing his unexpected fate. He looks at Lady Meridan and finds her blinking and sniffing. She clears her throat with the gentlest of coughs. “Well then. You’ll be taken to the hermitage at once. Always remember you are not to speak to anyone for any reason. From dawn to dusk, whenever you’re not doing what needs must, you are to pray for the health and good fortune of the household. Understood?”
Felix nods. He understands, as much as he can understand anything now that his son is gone. The world dims around him. He doesn’t expect it will ever be bright again.
More conversation between Lady Meridan and her staff drifts by Felix’s unhearing ears. Eventually a hand on his shoulder points him in a direction and he starts walking. Along with three footmen, he ventures into dense forest beyond the castle opposite the refugee camp. After a while the men have to take hatchets from their belts and hack at briars and saplings to form a path. Another hand on Felix’s shoulder stops his pained steps. If he squints, he can just make out a structure covered in a thick curtain of ivy and nearly swallowed by brambles.
One of the footmen blows out a breath. “We’ll take the shack. Brycen, you the shrine.”
They set about chopping away foliage until the front of a rough building of stone and mortar and thatch emerges. Alongside stands a stone table upon which Felix counts seven foot-high statues placed on two levels.
“Right, that’ll do,” says the lead footman. He turns and strides back down the path. The others follow.
A request for food and water very nearly makes it out of Felix’s mouth before he bites it back. Gods, perhaps an hour in and he’s already come within an inch of breaking his silence. And yet, his empty stomach knots and his throat is parched. He thinks of the few bites of bread and sips from a waterskin he shared with Sam that morning. Their last meal together. Fresh grief wells up, and Felix trudges the last few steps into his new home.
Yanking hard to free the door from mud packed against the threshold and in the hinges nearly saps the last of his strength, but he makes it inside. The floor is dirt strewn with ancient rushes and spiders that flee from Felix’s tread. There is a woven mat by a window and at the back a tiny hearth, next to which sits a wooden bowl and cup, an hourglass, a book, and a skull. Everything is caked in grime. Felix lifts the book’s cover with one finger, but exhaustion, hunger, thirst, and sorrow quickly crush his curiosity. For a while all he can do is sit and stare at nothing.
Eventually, a vague thought to the dropping temperature gets him up and collecting detritus from the footmen’s battle with the foliage. He fills the hearth with rushes and twigs and stacks more wood beside it. He then pulls his flint and a small stone from a pouch on his belt and strikes a flame. The simple activity leaves him trembling and dizzy, and he collapses more than sits by the fire.
It’s all right, he thinks as he lays his head on the floor and fog fills his mind. As long as Sam gets to the monastery, as long as he’s safe, nothing else matters. Felix reaches out a hand and lays it on the book. He sends his first prayer to whatever gods he’s tasked to revere- Please protect my son.
Shadows close in, and he escapes into dreamless sleep.
He wakes more tired than before, barely able to lift his head and regretful when he does. The shack’s grime seems to have coated his throat. He tries to remember if there was a stream between here and the castle, but his mind wanders in and out of focus. Not that he could walk to this hypothetical water source in any case. His limbs tingle with weakness. Even his ruined ankle hurts in a diffuse, distant way. There’s nothing he can do. He wonders idly how long Lady Meridan will believe her new hermit is praying for her family’s well-being. It will likely be months before anyone finds him. He wonders if animals will bother to gnaw at his bones. It won’t be worth the effort.
It’s all right, he reminds himself again as darkness returns. He’s done the only duty required of him. He sent his son to a good place, where he can build a life in safety. Sam will remember him, maybe even tell his own son about his father, someday. Perhaps not, if he takes vows as a monk. Either way, Felix is at peace.
Then, somewhere very far off, a voice speaks. He can’t hear the words, but he feels movement. Someone is lifting his upper body, cradling it. Someone soft. Cool wetness splashes against his dry lips and the voice becomes clearer, “… Please, please, please… Oh, don’t be dead. Drink. Please…”
The woman sounds so desperate, Felix does his best to open his mouth and take a sip. The water feels amazing as it rushes down his throat. He almost moans before catching himself.
“There, yes, that’s it. Thank the gods. I thought you were gone. You’ll be all right now. Keep drinking.”
He takes gulp after gulp until his stomach gurgles and cramps and he flinches away from the woman’s waterskin. Wondering who in the Meridan household remembered his existence, Felix peers up to find the beautiful blue eyes from before gazing down at him. The woman smiles and sunlight filtered through ivy makes her look like a living goddess.
“That’s enough water, I suppose,” she says, “Rest now, I wouldn’t want you to get sick. When you’re ready, I have some soup you can try.”
Felix is almost certain he ought to move away, that it is unacceptable for a hermit to lie in the arms of a lady. And that’s what she surely must be. Her dress is as fine though simpler than Lady Romilda’s, and her skin is clean and pale. But he’s too weak to crawl away- the best he can do is shut his eyes again and stop gaping at her beauty.
But they pop back open when she jostles him slightly. “Hey, don’t drift off. We may not get lucky a second time. Here.” Thankfully she shifts onto her feet and props him up against a wall. It’s hard to keep track of her, but he tries to as she moves around the room. She picks up a large branch and uses its leaves to sweep dust and spiders out of the doorway. Then she stirs a pot that hangs above a fire in the hearth. After that, she pulls a cloth from a pocket of her dress and sits down, taking the wooden cup in hand and cleaning it.
“I’m sorry, truly,” she announces. She doesn’t look at Felix, but it seems slightly less likely that she’s addressing the cup. “Carson was supposed to assign a servant to deliver food and water, but it slipped his mind. Like so very many things.” She puts down the cup and picks up the bowl, scrubbing at its surface with severe focus. “It won’t happen again, I’ll see to it myself.”
Felix can only sit in dull silence while she moves on to the hourglass and the book. She hardly reacts to the skull’s empty-eyed grin, just wipes its dome to a faint shine.
“There, that’s put things in some better order.” She smiles slightly and shakes her head, ‘Gods, I’ve walked in here and rearranged everything without even introducing myself. My name is Cassandra. I’m… I’m the wife of, uh, Sir Thornton, the son of Lady Meridan. He’s away now, fighting. A-and you, you’re, ah…”
They blink at each other across dead air. Felix frowns, wondering if this is some very unsubtle attempt to get him to break his silence. She could report him to Lady Meridan, and have him tossed back out. It seems an odd pastime for a lady, but then, what would he know about such things?
Cassandra’s gaze drops as she grimaces inwardly. “No speaking. Of course. Please pardon me.” She looks at him again and draws her lower lip into her mouth for an instant. “I don’t know your name. I don’t think anyone in the house does. That’s… odd.”
She won’t get it out of him easily, of that he’s certain. Although, he does find himself wondering what it would sound like in her lilting accent. It’s been such a cumbersome thing all his life, but perhaps she’d improve it somehow. He glances over at the pot in the hearth.
“Oh, the soup, yes, would you like some?” Cassandra’s already moving with the bowl in her hand. It has a knob on it that allows her to scoop up a serving. She kneels in front of him and brings it to his lips. Felix can’t fathom how she bears this indignity but he’s still too weak to stop her and his heart is thumping so hard he thinks she’ll see it beneath his tunic. So he drinks the savory herb broth, and endures a mix of guilt and a strange kind of pride when Cassandra smiles brightly.
When half the soup is gone she sets the bowl aside. “That’s probably plenty. We shouldn’t overtax your stomach just now. It was difficult to eat regularly on the road, wasn’t it?”
She’s doing it again, trying to trick him. This is a better attempt- the sympathy in her eyes is quite convincing. But it won’t work. A nod or shake of his head isn’t speaking, but he shouldn’t risk it. So he just stares.
The sympathy dies. “Right, well, I suppose you’re feeling better now. But you should rest for a while. I or- someone will come with food and water twice a day. You have my word. So, all right. I’ll- oh wait, one moment.”
She stands and picks up the woven mat in the corner and carries it outside. Felix can’t see much from his angle beyond clouds of dust and the flicking corners of the mat. Cassandra’s soft grunts of effort come through quite well, though. Soon she reenters and lays the mat between Felix and the fire.
“There, that should do. Lie down now.”
Felix hasn’t been put to bed in decades, but that doesn’t stop Cassandra from easing him away from the wall and onto his right side on the mat. She builds up the fire until heat rolls over his face.
He expects her to leave, but instead she stays crouched behind him, and even lays a hand on his arm. “All right. You rest. Sleep is probably the best thing for you. I’ll- someone will come check on you and bring more food and water. And some candles. Consider it done. Good bye.”
What a strange lady, Felix reflects after she’s left and a more comfortable weariness finds him. He’ll have to stay on his guard, or she really might trick him into speaking.
Felix wakes with a clearer head, to his relief. He can reach for the bowl and finish off the rest of the soup, then drain the waterskin Cassandra left behind. Afterwards he spends a while lying on his back, staring at the thatched roof above, coming to terms with the fact that he’s still alive. It’s quite a surprise. If Cassandra hadn’t thought to pay him a visit, he would have died on the floor of this shack, alone and unremarked. The world is a colder, duller place without Samuel at his side, but Felix finds he’s grateful not to have left it.
He fishes in the bag that holds his cloth and pulls out a beautiful bow woven in golden thread. It gleams in the slanted sunshine. He sits up and places it on the waterskin for Cassandra to find. A paltry reward for saving him, but it’s the best he can do. Since the movement hasn’t left his head spinning, he scrapes together the will to stand. Though his legs tremble and he clutches his staff, he doesn’t fall. Cautious steps carry him out of the shack and over to the shrine.
It’s nature-stained and ancient. Sun and weather have bleached the statues and eroded them to vaguely human shapes. It’s difficult to even tell which is a god and which is a goddess. Felix’s staff thunks against something on the ground- he finds a stone slab roughly the shape of a large log. There are two furrows worn into it, the right size for a man’s knees and shins. The last evidence of Theodore, his predecessor. Felix gingerly lowers himself into the dead man’s place. It’s more or less comfortable. His bad ankle isn’t much bothered by the position. His eyes rove over the statues, whose featureless faces are all pointed at him.
Felix scratches under his jaw where short hairs poke at his skin. He has next to no experience with acts of spiritual devotion. In his Riverwood village, any festival for this god or that was mostly in truth an excuse to drink and dance- anyone who tried to interrupt with a sermon risked having something thrown at them. These gods are complete strangers to him, as he is to them and to the people who he prays for. He’s having trouble understanding what Lady Meridan believes his prayers will achieve.
Regardless, he decides the shrine is a holy place. A way for him to communicate, whether he knows who he’s communicating with or not. Lady Meridan may decide his prayers are worthless, but she will not be able to say he didn’t send them. So he sets down his staff, clasps his hands and bows his head, and tries to empty his mind of anything that isn’t wordless hope that good fortune will find all members of the Meridan household.
It’s surprisingly difficult. Several times his thoughts stray to Samuel and he has to rein them in again. Worse is when his focus narrows to only Cassandra, which is surely not appropriate at all. Soon he finds his thoughts separating into two distinct strings- one that maintains the ongoing prayer, and one that notices wind in the trees or an itch on his leg or fresh hollowness in his stomach. Cassandra said someone would come with food and water. She gave her word. But really, he can only guess at the value of that. If she broke it, what consequences would she face? He could pray to these gods to avenge him, but why would they care for him any more than she does? Gods listen to the rich and the powerful. People they recognize.
Felix notices something else in his second stream of thoughts. He has to piss. He might have thought his empty body would have sucked up every drop of the water and soup, but apparently not. When growing pressure interrupts the prayer in his first thought stream, he lifts his head and looks around, wondering where Theodore chose to do “what needs must,” as Lady Meridan put it. The shack has no chamber pot, and nature has certainly long since reclaimed any privy hole Theodore dug.
He’ll have to worry about that later. For now, he climbs to his feet and limps to the thick brambles that still claim the backside of the shack. He moves his clothes out of the way and permits a relieved sigh through his nose as piss patters into the leaves.
“There you are!”
He almost injures himself startling at Cassandra’s cheery words. He shoots an automatic glare at the lady, who stands with heavily laden arms and wide eyes as she takes in his obvious activity.
“Oh, um, right, yes, excuse me,” she babbles, and darts out of sight.
Felix smacks a hand over his hot face, then rights his clothing. His instinct is to follow Cassandra and find out what she’s brought, but he hesitates. From dawn to dusk unless unavoidably occupied, he must be praying. That was the deal. He returns to the shrine and tries to pray away his embarrassment.
He’s beginning to wonder if Cassandra fled the hermitage entirely upon witnessing him taking a piss when he hears soft footfalls and the swish of silk over grass. He hunches over his folded hands and shuts his eyes.
“Ah, hard at work already. That’s good. I’m so glad you’re doing better. There should be enough soup for the rest of the day, and you can get more water from the river. Just walk east of here for a minute or two and you’ll find it. I left some blankets inside, and candles. And I built up the fire. And, um, here’s this.”
She steps closer, and Felix’s shoulders twitch as something heavy is draped over them. His eyes open to find a hooded cloak lined with fur.
“You’ll need it, if you’re out here all the time. It will rain. Winter is mild, but it comes on quickly. I think you’ll need gloves, and maybe a quilted vest. And boots.”
He wants to stop her. A lady shouldn’t be lavishing a hermit with fine gifts. He couldn’t have bought a cloak like this with every coin he ever made. He can already feel it trapping sweet warmth against his body. However, she has a point. He’ll have to wear something if it rains. His old wool cloak would have soaked through after a while, even if it hadn’t been lost in the attack.
“ So, you should be a bit more comfortable now,” Cassandra continues as Felix negotiates his guilt, “If not, just say so- or don’t, um... Anyway, I think you dropped this.”
The golden bow appears before him held up by her dainty fingers. Felix’s stomach plummets. She can’t give back the only thing he can possibly offer her. He unclasps his hands and wraps them around hers to push the bow into her palm.
“Oh, you want me to… Well, thank you, that’s very kind.”
He sags a bit in relief as she withdraws her hand and doesn’t drop the bow. Not in front of him, at least. He folds his hands again and bends over them, trying to bury the memory of her soft skin under a mountain of prayers.
“Right, I’ll leave you to it then. Take care, um, sir.”
Again, she touches his arm before leaving, though this time it’s blunted by the cloak. Once he’s alone Felix shakes off the sensation and focuses on his prayers until the sun falls behind the trees. Then he takes his staff and levers himself up even more gingerly than when he kneeled down, joints cracking and muscles twinging the whole way. He’ll have to get used to that he supposes while shuffling into the shack and taking note of a nest of blankets that now covers the mat. He’ll need a chest for them, to keep away homeless mice or hungry moths. After stirring embers in the hearth and scooping up another helping of soup, Felix sits and ponders how he might wordlessly ask Cassandra to bring a chest. He shakes his head, reminding himself not to give her a reason to run to Lady Meridan and have him dismissed.
Once he’s finished supper, Felix lies down with his back to the fire. In the flickering shadows, he notices six books lined up against the wall that weren’t there before.
The ghosts of war and human screams chase Felix out of sleep. Once the nightmare releases its grip, he peeks through the ivy to find the sky only a shade or two lighter than full night. He has some time before he must report to the shrine. With the waterskin and his staff in hand, he goes in search of the river Cassandra mentioned. His breath puffs out in white clouds and he wishes he wore the cloak. Autumn is fading- he hopes winter is as mild as Cassandra said.
Faint remnants of a path help Felix navigate the shadowy forest and come to the bank of a wide, slow-moving river shrouded in mist. He splashes his face and water dribbles through bristly hair covering his cheeks and chin. Normally he stays beardless until winter comes, then shaves it off with summer’s arrival. He scratches at the itchy growth and thinks longingly of his well-used razor. Though it was among the few things he managed to grab while fleeing his village, by now it’s surely been claimed by another refugee, along with everything else he and Sam didn’t take to the castle. He’ll have to hope for a mild summer as well, if he’s going to have a blanket hanging off his face.
He fills the waterskin and returns to the hermitage, picking up fresh wood for the hearth on his way. However, he’s surprised by firelight glowing within the shack. He didn’t stir the embers before leaving. He approaches cautiously, and can hardly believe his eyes when he opens the door to find Cassandra sitting at the hearth reading the book Theodore left behind.
She glances up at him and gasps, a hand flying to her chest. “Oh, you’re back. We really must stop sneaking up on each other, don’t you think? It’s bad for our health.”
Felix edges inside, wondering while he sets down the wood what could possibly have brought the lady out here before dawn. His gaze drops to the page held open on her lap.
She follows his look and gives him a bashful smile. “I hope you don’t mind, but I was just so curious. Um, have you read it yet?”
Felix received a cursory education on the basics of letters and numbers from the spinsters who took him in. But he’s had little need of the former. Considering it now, it’s possible this book contains some information on the gods he’s meant to worship. It would be nice to name those he prays to. He sits as close to Cassandra as he dares, and she offers the book to him. Each page is dense with elaborate calligraphy- Felix can only identify the simplest words.
“It’s a beautiful book,” she remarks, “Must have taken years to create. Look at these illustrations.”
She reaches over and flips a page and Felix registers a colorful image featuring several people at varying levels of nakedness intimately entwined under a tree before his hands smack the book shut. His face burns hot, and he fixes his eyes on the wall while mentally erasing Cassandra’s entire presence. He notices four more books have joined the mysterious six that appeared yesterday.
Cassandra coughs delicately. “Fienne. Goddess of marriage. It seems she was very busy that day.”
She’s trying to trick him. Felix remembers now. It’s some strange amusement of hers, to get him to speak so she might have him tossed back out on the road. She crept up on him while he was taking a piss, and now she’s showing him disturbing pictures. Well, her scheme has failed again. Felix drops the book, grabs his staff, and marches out to kneel before the shrine. Dawn has yet to arrive, but all Cassandra will able to report to Lady Meridan is his eagerness to pray.
For several minutes he’s left in peace. But then he hears her damned skirts on the grass again. Something scraping across the stone next to his knee forces him to open his eyes and take note of a fine white cup that contains something dark and steaming. Accompanying it on its saucer is a slice of buttered bread. “Um, I made tea,” Cassandra says, her voice small, “The rest of the loaf is inside. Someone will come by this afternoon with more food. I’ll take the soup pot with me and have it washed. Good day.”
She flits off and after the scent of her fades away, Felix feels like he can breathe again. It seems the longer he knows Cassandra, the odder she becomes. He must watch himself. She is not to be trusted, no matter how sweetly she may smile.
That said, whether she’s trying to sabotage him or not, the tea is getting cold. Felix takes a sip, careful to avoid the chip in the rim. Warmth flows down inside his chest and pours into his stomach. A taste of the buttered bread draws a happy sigh out of him. On the road he almost forgot butter even existed. It feels like a miracle to have it presented to him by a lady. But surely she’ll stop coming soon. Once she loses interest in her little game she’ll send a servant with his food, if she remembers.
He drains the cup and eats the slice, then resumes his position with bowed head, folded hands, and closed eyes. With his stomach warm and fed, it’s easier to focus. He actually manages to lose himself in prayer while the sun rises and floats across the sky. Having at least learned one god’s identity, he prays to Fienne for a little while. He asks that Cassandra might find happiness in her marriage. With a brave and no doubt handsome knight to call husband, Felix doesn’t doubt she’ll be very happy. Assuming he survives the war.
Gulping down a quick lunch of bread and water, he returns to the shrine and devotes his afternoon prayers to the desperate hope that this land will be spared his home’s fate. That something will hold back the invaders and keep everyone safe. He pleads with his whole cowardly soul until the sun sinks below the tree line. His hands hurt as much as his legs when he unclasps them.
A gentle cough drifts over his shoulder. He turns to find Cassandra standing with the soup pot cradled in one arm and a basket hanging from the other. She dips into a brief curtsey. “Good evening, sir. There, see? We’ve finally stopped spooking each other.”
Felix nods back at her, daring to assume his noble employer won’t mind him returning a lady’s greeting after sunset.
“I have some more things for you,” she says, holding up the pot and basket, “I’ll take them inside, shall I?”
She strides into the shack, and this time Felix has no compelling reason not to follow her. She moves about as if she’s the one who lives here, putting down her burdens and settling at the hearth to stir embers and add wood. Felix shuffles inside and sits across from her as he did in the morning. Cassandra pushes the pot in his direction, so he takes it and peeks under the lid. It’s full of root vegetables and some cured meat, he finds. And as he digs around a bit, a pear emerges. He pulls it out with a smile, quite possibly his first since he lost Sam.
“You should eat that now, it’s so difficult to catch pears just when they’re ripe. I’m sure it’ll be brown tomorrow.”
He does as advised and almost overly sweet juice floods his mouth with the first bite. He swipes at the sticky overflow with the back of his hand, hoping to keep some of it from seeping into his beard. A swift glance at Cassandra reveals that she’s not paying attention to his battle with the pear. Instead she’s focused on the basket, digging through what appear to be men’s clothes. When she reaches the bottom she pulls out a small book. She stands and adds it to the others lined up against the wall, then returns to her seat. Felix doesn’t miss the surreptitious look she shoots in his direction.
The poised lady transforms into an anxious girl, her shoulders hunched and lower lip pinned between her teeth. Felix can’t help raising an eyebrow in a silent request for an explanation. “They’re mine,” she blurts out, “From home. Before I- I was married. I couldn’t leave them, they’re... They’re mine.”
She fixes a look on Felix that’s somewhere between stubborn and pleading. He can only blink in response before it fades back into discomfort.
“However, Lady Meridan has opinions on what constitutes appropriate literature for young women. I’m honestly surprised Romilda knows what a book is .” She draws a short breath. “Anyway, I don’t want my books mysteriously vanishing from my chambers, so I thought they might be safer out here. With you. I can take them back. I know it was wrong to start bringing them without asking. I- I’m sorry.”
She moves toward the books, but Felix holds up a hand. She eases back down with wary hope replacing the anxiety in her face. Felix thinks how he would have appreciated a safe hiding place for what little he had, before the war. An attacking army is not in any way similar to a disapproving mother-in-law, but a loss is a loss, and Cassandra shouldn’t have to endure the pain of it. And in any case, hiding books with him suggests a level of trust that seems unlikely if she was trying to sabotage his position. He’d like to explain all this, but the best he can do is reach for his own book- and he supposes the indecent thing is his now. He turns to a random page and leans against the side of the hearth, eating his pear while deciphering some words. Unga, god of scholars, he reads, and wonders what Sam is learning at the monastery.
After a few moments, Cassandra fetches one of her books and reclines against the other side of the hearth. Felix can’t help glancing over at her. They exchange shy smiles before focusing on their reading.
After a while, Cassandra sets aside her book and climbs to her feet. As she leaves, she reaches out to squeeze Felix’s shoulder and murmur, “Good night, Bow.”
When his skin has stopped its warm tingling where it made contact with her hand, Felix frowns. What did she call me?
Felix wakes with a throat that feels like he swallowed a handful of burrs in the night. A few coughs only make it sting sharply and sips of water do little to help. It hurts to swallow the last of the bread, not that he’s at all hungry. Once that chore is done he goes out to the shrine and bows his head, which feels heavier than it did yesterday. It grows heavier still as morning drags on and unfocused prayers float around in it. The sun is bright, but chills roll through Felix’s body.
He’s trembling on his stone perch by the time he hears Cassandra call, “Good morning!”
He gives her a nod as she goes to the shack, then lowers his head again and tries to get his foggy mind to concentrate. It would be easier if his throat would stop burning.
“Your lunch is in the hearth, should be ready by noon,” Cassandra says when she reemerges.
Felix wishes she’d speak up, her voice sounds distant. A chill darts up his spine and shivers into his shoulders.
“Oh, would you like your cloak? It is colder today.”
He wants to protest Cassandra fetching and carrying like she’s his servant, but even if it was permitted he doesn’t think his raw throat would allow a word to emerge. In any case she’s already wrapped the cloak around him and now secures the clasp with her forearms resting on his shoulders and for a moment he actually feels good. It ends with the next chill, as if the cold snuck in under the cloak before Cassandra could stop it.
He waits for her to leave, but instead she crouches directly behind him. When he cranes around to see what’s happening, she meets his puzzled look with a smile. “I’ve commissioned boots for you. The cobbler needs measurements. It won’t take a minute, just stay still. Don’t let me bother you.”
At her nod toward the shrine Felix returns to his duties while his whole body tenses to stop trembling. Heat is fogging up his head, and his throat aches when he tries to swallow. He’s sick- it’s as obvious as it is unwelcome. Weeks of living on the road without a roof over his head have taken their toll at last.
“There, all done,” Cassandra declares, standing up and moving to his side, “As soon as they’re ready, they’ll be brought to you. So, good day.” She bobs a curtsey and vanishes.
Felix’s fever is growing and he’s soon gasping air as if that could cool it. Each unsteady breath stings his enflamed throat. He can’t stop his prayers from veering into pleas for relief from the gods, though their names blur to nonsense.
At some point thoughts of the lunch Cassandra prepared for him drift across his mind. She said it was in the hearth- he can’t let it burn. He totters off the stone and the world tilts like he’s standing on a ship’s deck in a gale. He smears cold sweat across his brow and tries to take a step, but ends up on his knees once again. Weariness surges out of his bones and his head drops against the stone’s cool surface. He has to get up. He has to be praying, or eating, or something. But all he can do is close his eyes and curl up in the hot darkness inside his head.
His village was razed to the ground. The sun was blotted out by smoke filled with screams and roars. He can still see it curling around the rafters of his house, while he huddles in a corner and tries to figure out what to do. Where’s Sam? Felix needs to find him, can’t go anywhere without him. But he’s not in the house, he’s not anywhere. And the war is coming.
Felix can’t find his staff so he has to crawl across the floor in search of his boy. A fresh volley of screams rush in from outside but all he can do is hunch his shoulders and keep moving. He stops short when he sees Cassandra cowering by the hearth, her fine dress stained with dirt and her beautiful eyes full of fear. Felix needs her. He can’t find Sam without her. He crawls forward until he can pull her close.
He holds a finger to his lips. They can’t make a sound. The troops will hear them. They crawl together and soldiers tear the walls away, or maybe they just fall on their own. He and Cassandra keep moving, choking on dust and ash and smoke while massive fists swing above their heads.
“It’ll be all right. You’ll be all right. Come on,” Cassandra says though Felix tries to quiet her.
A tiny light glimmers through the chaos and Felix hurries toward it. It grows and he sees a person standing in it- a woman he thinks, her form silhouetted by shining sunbeams. She seems wholly unafraid of the rampaging monsters. She’s powerful, whoever she is. She’ll know where Sam’s gone. Felix crawls as fast as he can to reach her, but she holds up a hand. “Stop. Go back,” she says, though her voice is less a sound than a sensation that passes through him.
He can’t go back. Nothing’s left for him there but death. Death and… Cassandra. She’s not by his side anymore. He has to find her. Then they’ll find Sam. He turns around, and the ruined town seems even darker when the light flickers out. Where’s Cassandra? He crawls through the gloom, searching among the mountainous bulk of bodies.
“Bow? Open your eyes, look at me.”
He hears her voice- where is she? Shadows swarm and press in tighter. Deciding the enemy troops will find him no matter how little noise he makes, Felix tries to call Cassandra’s name, but his throat seizes up and throbs. He’s sick, he recalls. A sore throat. A fever. The shadows have congealed into solid blackness. So he does as Cassandra says, and opens his eyes.
Cassandra’s face slowly swims into focus. She beams down at him before her expression becomes stern. “You’re lucky I came back early to get your glove measurements. You would’ve been unconscious out there until evening. I’ve stopped sneaking up on you, will you please stop almost dying on me?”
Felix blinks at her while half his mind still crawls through smoke. She rolls her eyes and reaches for something- the chipped cup, which she brings to his lips.
“Drink. The honey will help.” Hot, sweet tea flows down his tender throat. Against his will he relaxes in Cassandra’s arms, for that’s the miraculous place he finds himself once again. She’s somehow dragged him into the shack, another miracle in itself. When he’s drained the cup, she sets it aside and gently lays him down on the blankets before going to build up the fire to a blaze. Between it, the cloak, and the blankets, the chills that wracked Felix’s body earlier dwindle to shivers.
He expects her to leave, and then when she picks up a book he waits for her to sit by the hearth. Instead she returns to him, lifting his head and settling it on her thigh. She reads silently with one hand resting on his chest, a small weight that does more to warm him than anything else. He was thinking about her before he woke, wasn’t he? All he remembers is darkness as he waited for death. But, there was a light, wasn’t there? Maybe.
He’s back to herb broth and water again, though he manages to hold the skin and bowl himself. After a while the pain in his throat is manageable and slight dizziness is all that remains of his fever.
Cassandra sighs above him, “I suppose I have to go. I’ll be missed at supper.” She fixes another stern look on Felix. “Now I want you to rest. Don’t sit out in the cold tomorrow. Take a day.”
He frowns. The worst of the illness has passed, there’s no reason he can’t perform his duty.
Cassandra tilts her head. “Right, I can see you won’t listen to me like a sensible man. If such a thing exists.” She glances up and back down at him. “You see the hourglass? Three turns. Then back inside where it’s warm, understand? I’ll be very upset if I come in the evening and find you at the shrine. Deal?”
Felix considers. It makes a small amount of sense that he should rest after a fever rendered him unconscious. He might build up his strength, to avoid further interruptions. And he can read his book, to better prepare himself for prayer. Yes, he’ll rest, and begin again stronger and more capable. He nods and is gifted with Cassandra’s wide smile. Her hand presses against his chest, almost pets him.
“All right. Agreed. Three turns. Remember, we have a deal. Good bye, Bow.”
She rises, and he sits up to release her, somehow managing to catch her hand in his on the way. He decides he might as well show her his confusion while mouthing the word bow.
Cassandra rolls her eyes and shifts awkwardly. “Well, I have to call you something. So, Bow, like the bow you gave me. Which is beautiful, by the way. I keep wearing it, even though I know it’s all I’m going to get.”
Felix blinks, slightly ashamed that he didn’t think of rewarding her for coming to his rescue a second time. He reaches for the bag he left near his blankets, taking out the red bow and tucking it into her palm.
For some reason, this particular smile of hers sends a strange pulse through his body. “Thank you,” she murmurs, then squints at him, “Does this mean you’d prefer to be called Red? Or, Scarlet?”
If Felix’s throat was healthier, he might have actually laughed. Fortunately, it comes out as just a wheeze and small cough. He shakes his head. Bow is a fine name. Short and simple. He likes it, very much.
“All right then. I shall see you tomorrow.” Cassandra’s hand slips from his, forcing Felix to realize that he’s grasped it for far too long.
After she’s gone, he lays back on the blankets and watches the fire. Tries not to match flames to the curve of Cassandra’s smile. The lady’s beauty seems to only be eclipsed by her kindness. He can hardly believe she’s chosen to bestow it on him. He must honor his benefactor as he does the gods of the shrine. He’ll make a place for her among them, high above, out of reach. And he won’t ever think of the soft warmth of her hands, or her clear blue eyes that see so much of him, or her sweet voice leading him out of darkness.
In the morning Felix boils a potato and makes himself a cup of tea to bring to the shrine, scooping up the hourglass as he goes. He will keep his deal with Cassandra. Once he’s settled on the stone, regular sips from the chipped cup ease the pain in his throat. The hourglass proves helpful as he neatly divides his prayers into those devoted to Sam, those for Cassandra, and those for the Meridan household.
While his head is bowed and his hands are folded he hears silk whisper across grass. Cassandra doesn’t speak when he glances at her, just holds up three fingers with a warning look. He responds with a bashful nod and lets her go about her business gathering firewood and refilling the waterskin. She squeezes his shoulder on the way out of the hermitage and Felix spends the next minute or two remembering who he’s praying to for what, scolding himself all the while for his weakness.
When three turns are done he retreats to the shack and settles in front of the fire with his book and a second cup of tea. He’s getting better at deciphering the elaborate script, and though some of the illustrations make his skin itch and his cheeks heat before he quickly flips the page, they do help his understanding of this foreign pantheon. When he resumes his full day’s worship, he’ll keep dividing his time with the hourglass, so no god is ignored.
A patch of sunshine stretches across the floor and Felix’s eyes flicker from it to the page as his mind instantly calculates the hours left until dusk. He sighs- it will serve his foolish eagerness right if Cassandra doesn’t come. She must have other demands on her time, he can’t assume she’ll drop everything just to see if he kept their deal or not. Felix nails his gaze to the page and roars every word of the next sentence inside his mind. If anything ought to distract him, it should be his son. He hopes Cassandra would’ve mentioned if Sam hadn’t made it to the monastery safely, or if something happened after his arrival. But then how would she know? And if she did get word, what help could he possibly provide? Formless worry gnaws at Felix and his heart aches for his lost boy.
He’s almost done packing away his grief and fear by the time Cassandra arrives. She stands before him with her chin held high as she presents a plate covered by a silver lid. She whisks the lid off and the aromas of corned beef and seasoned vegetables spill out. Hunger yawns in Felix’s stomach and he gratefully takes the plate and utensils Cassandra passes him.
“Direct from Lady Meridan’s table,” she says, though the last word ends in a faint cough and frown as her fingers brush her throat.
Felix stares up at her, appetite lost under the crushing weight of guilt. He got her sick.
Cassandra immediately tilts her head and smiles. “Don’t panic, Bow, I’m fine. It’s a little dry, that’s all. It gets dusty in the castle.”
Illness has deepened her voice to a low and husky range. It’s actually quite appealing. He quickly lowers his shamed face to the plate. This food is finer than any he’s ever had, and she brought it to him even after he infected her. His chores still needed doing, and no one was left to do them but her. A fact she never let him forget.
While he wanders through bitter memories, Cassandra scoops up herb broth in his bowl and settles by the hearth. She sips it and hums. “This is just what I need.” She leans back against the rough stone, staring at nothing. “Lady Meridan had me banished from supper. Ordered a general quarantine of my chambers. Which is wonderful- it’s not a far drop at all from my window. The tricky part was tying up the plate and lowering it down.”
Felix can only gape at her, utterly unable to comprehend why she would go to that much trouble. He looks at the plate on his lap and realizes this is likely the meal she was served. The meal she traded for a hermit’s soup.
“I probably ought to thank you. Aside from a scratchy throat I feel perfectly fine. I think going through you took the fight out of it.”
Felix holds a finger to his lips before touching his neck. He’s desperate for anything that might repay his debt to her, but the best he can do is let her know he doesn’t want her to get any worse.
Cassandra just rolls her eyes and whispers, “All right.”
She continues to sip her broth while he consumes every speck of food on the plate. He would lick it clean if he could keep remnants out of his beard. The coarse strands itch more than ever, and Felix knows relief won’t come until it’s fully grown in. He tries not to be too obvious with his scratching.
“Finished?” Cassandra asks as she sets aside the bowl and stands.
Felix nods and offers her the empty plate and utensils.
“Leave those for now, we have a chore to do.”
He does as told and watches curiously as Cassandra kneels with barely a foot of space between them. She reaches into a pocket of her dress and pulls out two thin silk ribbons, two pieces of parchment rolled into a tube, and a stick of charcoal.
“Let me see your left arm?” she requests, and Felix extends it.
With one hand she holds the end of a ribbon to the tip of his middle finger, drawing the rest along the full span of his forearm. When she has the measure, she marks it with a quick knot. She makes two more knots for the size of his wrist and the length of his hand.
“And the right?”
The process is repeated with his right arm and the second ribbon. Felix finds his eyes darting to Cassandra’s face, taking in its unusual solemnity as she works.
“Put your left hand here,” she says after laying a piece of parchment flat on the floor. Felix presses his palm to it and Cassandra leans almost near enough for her head to brush his as she slowly traces the outline with the charcoal stick.
He really can’t tear his gaze away from her then. She’s somehow even more beautiful close-up. He could almost count the freckles faintly dappling her nose. A bit of light catches a tiny white scar at her hairline and he has to clench his jaw against asking how she got it. He tries his best to keep his hand still, but she has to cover it with her own, and Felix swallows dryly at its warm weight.
“That should do, I think. Now the right.”
Cassandra lays out the other sheet of parchment and pins Felix’s hand between it and hers. He spends this time not wondering at all if the rest of her body is as warm as her hand. Their breath mingles and Felix fights to keep his steady and shallow, rather than sucking in deep drafts of her scent.
“All right, I think that’s good. Sorry to keep you up for this, but you’ll thank me when rain isn’t dripping down your…” She trails off as her eyes lift from the parchment and meet his, which have been burrowing into her for several minutes.
Felix’s panicked brain shrieks commands to stop leering at the poor woman, but he can’t make himself do so much as blink. After far too many taut seconds pass, he finally manages to cough and look down at his hand. Cassandra’s still rests on it for some reason, and even more bafflingly curls around it and turns it palm up.
Her thumb presses into a callus there that’s so thick he can hardly feel it- his reward for hefting a staff with nearly every step he took. He still remembers the taut pain of the swollen blisters as they formed. He wondered if they’d fester, and he would end up ridding his family of their crippled cowardly burden after all. But he survived when they popped and scabbed over and left behind a pad of numb scar tissue across his palm and patches on his fingers. He can’t make a fist anymore without feeling like he’s holding a flat stone under his skin.
“You should keep resting. You’re not well yet,” Cassandra murmurs, and if Felix was ever allowed to ask one more question, he would ask why she cares. It’s a mystery he can’t at all fathom. What brings her out here day after day? Is she truly just that noble of heart? If he’s never going to know another person for the rest of his life, he would like to know her. She sits back and rolls up the parchment pieces again, tucking it into her pocket with the ribbons and charcoal. “Maybe stay out for six turns tomorrow. But if you get tired, come inside. Deal?”
He mouths deal and is gifted with her smile. A trick of the firelight makes her round cheeks look pink before she picks up the plate and stands.
“I’ll bring your gloves as soon as they’re ready. Good night, Bow.”
Felix nods at her swift curtsey, then she’s gone. He rubs at his eyes, and smiles at black streaks she left behind on the sides of his fingers and palms.
The next day Felix dutifully prays for the prescribed six turns of the hourglass, sharing a quick nod with Cassandra as she comes and goes on her morning visit. At the end he stands while twitching and plucking at his tunic. He sweated out the last of his fever in the night, now his skin is sticky with it. The time has come and gone since he needed to bathe. He wonders how Cassandra has withstood his stench for so long. While the sun shines with as much warmth as the season allows, Felix retreats to the shack to strip off everything but his boots. Once he’s bundled himself up in the cloak he takes his staff and walks to the riverbank, feeling every sneaky gust of air along the way.
He eyes the water with a wince, but eventually manages to force himself to remove his boots, lay the cloak and his staff on a log, and walk a few steps away from the bank. The cold bites into his flesh and he lets out a hiss to keep a curse clenched behind his teeth. He crouches down and splashes and scrubs as quickly and thoroughly as he can, praying harder than he has all day that this will be enough. Gods know what he’ll do when winter finds him without a tub or even a wash basin in the shack. When his hands get numb and tingly he clambers out of the water and slings the cloak around himself, grimacing at new stiffness in his bad ankle. His clothes will need to be washed, but for the moment getting warm takes precedence.
Felix tugs on his boots and hobbles along the path to the shack, droplets raining down from the ends of his hair within the cloak’s hood. Once inside he hurls wood into the hearth and jabs at embers with a stick until they catch. Flames slowly grow and he parts the cloak far enough to allow some heat to reach his skin. He flicks back the hood long enough to wring out handfuls of hair, but soon he must stop and flex the cold sting out of wet fingers and pull the hood back up.
He’s contemplating standing up and drying his backside when he hears the door open. He clutches the cloak up to his chin as Cassandra enters and trills, “Good afternoon, Bow!”
His eyes squeeze shut, but he remains naked in the presence of a lady aside from his boots and the cloak. He glares at his clothes piled up by the hearth, but they refuse to magically appear on his body. He’s doomed.
Cassandra moves around behind him, unloading whatever gifts she’s brought today. Felix takes the risk of reaching out and grabbing his clothes, bundling them on his lap underneath the cloak to at least hide the most obvious evidence. A moment later, Cassandra sits down facing him on his right side and his entire body tenses. He glances at her and finds her lovely face creased with concern. “Has your fever come back?”
Felix is frozen. He’d love to snatch up the excuse she’s provided for him, but for some reason his neck muscles refuse to let him nod. He might have thought his enforced silence would save him from ever lying again, but here he is. And he can’t. Not to Cassandra.
He’s unresponsive long enough for her to reach out and lay a hand on his forehead. His eyes flutter shut as her warmth seeps into his chilled skin. He finds himself leaning into the contact a second before Cassandra pulls her hand away. “I don’t feel a fever, but you’re awfully clammy. Stay here, I’m going to get more firewood for you.”
Felix would cry out in relief if he wasn’t busy keeping his face completely passive as Cassandra stands and leaves the shack. When he can’t hear her footsteps outside, he whips off the cloak and pulls off his boots- but doesn’t yank on his filthy tunic. Instead he reaches for the fresh clothes Cassandra brought in her basket days ago. He feels guilty for roughly shoving his damp limbs into the soft blue-gray tunic and leggings.
He’s clothed beneath the cloak and almost breathing normally by the time Cassandra returns. “I’m sorry, Bow, I thought six turns wouldn’t be too strenuous for you,” she says while setting an armful of wood by the hearth and regaining her seat. She crosses her arms on her lap and cocks her head at him, “You got tired and kept praying anyway, didn’t you?”
He shakes his head, because that’s not what happened, but somehow his silence rings false and she simply nods with squinted eyes.
“Right. Of course you didn’t.”
He shakes his head harder, and this time some drops of water fall from his beard and hit the floor between them. Cassandra looks at the little dark circles, her brow slightly furrowed. Felix doesn’t dare to breathe.
“Well,” she says as a great bubble of anxiety in his chest threatens to burst, “Do you feel any better now?”
He nods with almost his whole upper body.
“Good. Um, I’ve brought some more potatoes, and bread, and milk. And more books. Is there anything else you need? Candles? Blankets?”
He shakes his head more carefully this time, but her last suggestion wakes his memory. He holds up a finger and stands, moving to his nest of blankets. He folds one of them and lays it on the floor. Then he draws a rectangle around it and mimes opening and shutting a lid.
He shoots a look at Cassandra to see how his sign language has been interpreted. She blinks at him, he pretends to open and shut a lid again. “Oh!” she cries as comprehension dawns, “A chest! For the blankets, of course. They’ll get eaten up out here, and soon, I’m sure. Yes, right, a chest. How will I get a chest out here?” Her voice goes soft with the question and she nibbles her lower lip as she ponders. Soon she shrugs, “I’ll figure it out. I promise. You’ll have your chest, and a- ah... Well, anyway, I should be getting back. Stay warm, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
As she walks to the door, she gracefully scoops up the scattered bits of Felix’s clothes that he doesn’t recall blindly tossing away in his rush to not be naked anymore. She tucks them under an arm as if they aren’t rank travel-stained rags.
With one foot outside, she says over her shoulder, “I’ll have these cleaned as well, shall I? Good evening, Bow.”
Caught between relief and humiliation, Felix limps to the small jug of milk Cassandra left and takes a long drink, wishing it was something stronger. He grasps the front of his new tunic and barely manages to stop himself from mopping up the excess that drained into his beard at the corners of his mouth. He has to be careful with these new clothes- they aren’t that of a poor peasant. In fact, wearing these, the cloak, and the new gloves and boots when they arrive, he could almost be mistaken for a nobleman. Maybe even a knight. Felix snorts through his nose and shakes his head at his imaginings. He returns to the fire to continue warming himself.
The next day while he is at prayer, he hears footsteps approaching the hermitage. They aren’t Cassandra’s quick stride, and Felix struggles to keep his head bowed. He can’t resist cracking open an eye and watching as two footmen drop a chest by the shack’s door, and another drops a wooden tub and bucket. They leave without a glance in his direction. When Felix takes a piss break, he also drags his new gifts inside. As he does so, he hears something shift within the chest. Peeking beneath the lid he finds a quilted vest. Folded within the vest is a pear.
Felix has to live a life in silence as he agrees to become a hermit. He can only think about his son at the monastry. Will he ever see him again? A broken heart and illness might get him killed... Might. Felix scrubs at his eyes, determined to be calm while facing his unexpected fate. He looks at Lady Meridan and finds her blinking and sniffing. She clears her throat with the gentlest of coughs. “Well then. You’ll be taken to the hermitage at once. Always remember you are not to speak to anyone for any reason. From dawn to dusk, whenever you’re not doing what needs must, you are to pray for the health and good fortune of the household. Understood?”