The Fifth Column [CHAPTER TWO]

[ 二 ]

The sicklewort burned and he hissed. His leg, though it had received the worst of it, had not been the only place struck by the arrows; he had a shallow cut along his lower abdomen too, where a stray arrow had laced through his tunic. Gently he maneuvered himself to a more comfortable position on the thin bedding.

The room was small, with adequate furnishings. Next to him his sweat-soaked shirt was tossed to the floor and blood, his blood, had mottled the boards, leaving behind a treacherous trail beginning from the front door of the very house itself. The lamp he had lit was not enough for him to see by, and he didn’t dare open the window too wide. It looked right out onto the streets, and it would not do for a curious passer-by to get it into his head to peek in.

Waiting for the pain to subside, he crushed more sicklewort between his fingers. The doors to his room were closed but faintly he heard the doors to the house open. Immediately his hand reached for the dagger strapped to his calf.

This house was a safe retreat, or so he had been told. This was the place for him to go should he require immediate assistance. There was medicinal help here, though not in the human form; instead, there were vials and potions and herbs and enough bandages to mummify a man. The drawer too was always well-stocked and ready with cash, and the wardrobe lined with more identical dark robes. This was a place where the man who gave the orders and the man who carried them out kept in contact, yet never met.

Footsteps came closer. The hold on the dagger tightened, and the door to the room was pushed open.

He stared at the newcomer, dagger up and unwavering.

And the newcomer stared right back, a tray of fresh herbs in her hands.

It was a young girl fresh into womanhood, wearing a plain linen gown and white socks. A pale ray of moonlight caught her squarely in the face, and he saw how her hazel eyes swept the room in one glance. For a moment both said nothing. Then she closed the door behind her, entering fully. The initial shock on her face was now gone, replaced by neutrality. He eyed her warily.

She looked at him, looked at his leather boots scuffing up the bedding, and she frowned. Her voice lilted. “Next time, leave those outside before you enter the house. It’s not easy to wash and dry that mattress.”

He said nothing, the dagger still steady, his gaze never flickering away. He thanked the gods he hadn’t taken off his face mask.

She took in the arrow, the shirt, and the half-nude stranger. As she leaned close he stiffened.

“Are you using sicklewort? You should be using arrow root. There is a reason why it’s named that, you know.”

From her tray of herbs she selected a few identical stalks, then pulled out the mortar and pestle from the medicine cabinet. Mashing the arrow root into a wet, green paste she rolled it between her palms and flattened it out.

When she moved to apply the poultice on him the dagger kissed her throat. His eyes left no doubt as to what he would do if she came nearer.

She merely raised an eyebrow. “You’re a soldier, not a healer. Let me do my job.”

She pressed forward and the dagger pressed back. Blood beaded at the tip and rolled down the length of the blade. She drew back, a tiny cut visible just above her larynx. There was a tense moment as both their eyes met, each as stubborn as the other.

Lightly she asked, “How lucky do you think you are?”

He said nothing. She went on.

“If you’re really lucky, the arrowhead wasn’t rusted, the wound is shallow, you don’t need disinfection, and sicklewort is enough to do the trick. Judging by how much you’re sweating though, as well as the blood splatters on the floor, I’d say the arrow cut your leg up pretty good. Which means a need for disinfection. Considering the fact that you don’t have water around you or a wet cloth I’m assuming you haven’t done it.” She furrowed her eyebrows together in mock thought. “I’m guessing . . . festering, swelling, a lot of pus and a lot of pain, bacterial infection and eventually, amputation. Oh, and if the arrowhead was rusted – rotting flesh.”

She leaned back. “So I ask you again. How lucky do you think you are?”

Silence. Then the dagger dipped. It clanked on the floor but he didn’t let go.

She shrugged. “Not very lucky then.”

The arrow root didn’t sting as bad as the sicklewort did, but it had a distinct spicy smell. He watched her work, his fingers never leaving the dagger. She seemed quite unfazed by his steady gaze and was barely affected by his nudity, giving only the most cursory of glances to his bare skin as she wrapped a bandage around both leg and abdomen. Any other maiden would have blushed herself furious.

The girl worked patiently and quietly. Minutes crept past. Outside the night was no longer as dark, with dawn creeping up on the horizon. She chanced a brief glimpse toward his face. Though it remained hidden by his mask she could see very clearly his eyes; dark and hooded they were, with a sort of intensity that seemed to demand it be burned into memory.

She pulled back, satisfied with her handiwork. “Done. Change the bandage every other day, and change the poultice when it dries out. If it starts to swell, add sicklewort. Don’t overexert yourself, you don’t want a scar.”

She wasn’t expecting a reply and he didn’t disappoint. Wrinkling her nose she tossed his shirt back at him and he caught it deftly with his free hand. He pulled it on and she turned back to her tray, clearing up her things with unnecessary slowness.

By the time she turned back around the window was a little more open and the room a little more empty. She regarded the thin mattress for awhile, her look almost reproachful. In the end she merely shrugged.

“Well that, is that.”

Gathering up the damp cloth she wiped the mortar and pestle clean, before placing both items back inside the cabinet. The tray of herbs she sorted and arranged nicely on the shelves. Making a mental note to bring more sicklewort the next time she came, she stood up to leave.

Her toes brushed against glass and leather.

Eyebrows pulled together slightly, she leaned down and picked the curious object up. It was a bracelet of some sort, the band made of hide – probably a cow’s, she thought.  Braided in some places and beaded in others, it looked worn but tough. The beads were smooth and round in shape, with colored stripes in them that she was sure would look beautiful under direct lamplight.

She hadn’t seen him wearing it. Maybe it had been kept in his pockets. Tugging it over her right wrist she found that it fitted perfectly.

The corner of her lips twitched as she murmured, “You’re most welcome, Red Clover.”

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