The stag stood motionless. Still far away, but within striking distance. The only thing between Mellie Harlowe and enough meat to get her through the winter was a tree that cut across her view of the stag, blocking a clean shot to its heart. Mellie crouched behind the ridge line, on the low end of a slope that flattened out behind her, and waited for the beast to take a couple steps forward.
With the help of her dog, Duke, she’d stalked the creature for most of the day. Duke picked up the scent before daylight and they’d patiently tracked it to this spot, where they’d been waiting for the opportunity to take it down.
Snow fell slowly, but steadily around them. Floating down in a straight line, as if they followed a taught string stretched from the treetops to the ground. They reminded her of tiny baubles. Little treasures to dream of and hold on to. But these were fluffy and light and would blow away in the slightest gust of wind.
It was a calm before the storm. A white, knee deep blanket already covered the forest floor. They were well into the dead of winter but the weather up to this point had been temperate and unusually dry. Until today. The first snowfall of the season started several hours earlier and come down in a hurry as if to make up for lost time. Now a stillness settled upon the woods. Animals had gone to shelter for a coming storm they could sense better than she. Mellie knew she needed this stag, or she would face a long bout of hunger in the coming days.
Yet, she would not take a shot unless she was absolutely certain she could kill it with one blow. Mellie pulled off the pair of emerald spectacles that protected her eyes from the bright white of the snow, and replaced them with a single, round eyepiece. Her brow and cheek muscles held the thick lens in place while she examined the distance to the stag and it’s position, her right eye tightly closed. Mellie would not risk missing, or worse, injuring the stag, only for it to charge off and suffer, no matter how hungry she was.
So, she waited. Duke nestled obediently beside her in the snow, panting silently. The stag’s tail flipped around in little circles, its ears twisting and turning. A sign that it was relaxed. Mellie quietly slipped an arrow from the quiver on her back, positioned it carefully into her bow, and rose from the ground slowly, so as not to draw the stags attention. She readied herself.
She was aware of Duke tensing into position at her feet. He stayed low, but he would charge the moment she let the arrow fly. The massive dog was not meant for hunting, but he would clear a path to the fallen animal more swiftly than she could, and if it died out of sight, Duke would lead her to it .
Carefully, Mellie took a step forward, moving heel to toe up the ridge line. Bow and arrow raised and ready. Then, the stag inched past the tree and stopped in the perfect position.
She took only a second to eye the shot through her spectacle, to ensure her aim was right, and just as she was about to let go, the wind changed direction, sweeping the top layer of snow into a swirl of white dust. Duke whined and swiveled around, heading in the opposite direction from the startled stag.
Mellie looked for the stag. It had bolted, but there was still time to track it if they moved fast. Except Duke had trotted a few paces away, his paws shuffled anxiously in the snow. He looked back at her and whimpered again. He’d gotten a whiff of something when the wind rushed by and now he was waiting for Mellie’s command to track it. He bounced on his back paws, pointing with his nose.
The dog had never failed her. She put her emerald spectacles back on and shouted, “Such!”, ordering Duke with the German word for “find”, which sounded like zooch. Duke rocketed through the snow and she followed behind in his tracks, finishing the short climb to the top of the hill where they had settled in while watching the stag. He was nearing another ridge but stopped and waited impatiently for her to catch up.
The dog worked a relentless path through the forest for about a mile, weaving through a thick overgrowth of trees, heavily laden with snow, until eventually he reached the edge of an old road that rarely saw travelers. Duke was frantically clearing the snow from something. An animal, she thought. Though, probably dead and useless to them.
As she approached, Mellie noticed a patch of deep red snow, dark and sticky looking. Then Duke nuzzled a cover of white flakes off of something pale and fleshy and she realized….
“That can’t be…” Pulling a spyglass out of her pack, Mellie expanded it and scanned the area. Her eyes were not fooling her.
It was a man.
Mellie broke into a run. How could there be a man, bloodied and broken laying beneath the snow? Out here? In the middle of nowhere? For a split second it occurred to her that he could be a highwayman. It wouldn’t be the first time she encountered one and they were known for their trickery. But his ashen complexion, the pool of congealed blood, and the perfect, unbroken snow that masked him, all told her that wasn’t so.
She dropped to her knees at his side and brushed the remaining snow off his face as Duke continued to unbury the rest of him. She pulled her gloves off to feel his skin and was relieved, but shocked, to feel a weak feathery breath against her palm. He was still alive.
He was cold. Practically frozen. And probably would be dead if not for the thick woolen cloak protecting him from the frigid temperatures. Mellie gently slapped his cheeks. “Wake up. Hello! Are you ok?”
Of course he wasn’t ok, but she asked the ridiculous question anyway, in hopes of his attention. He didn’t stir, so she began looking over him for injuries. The major one, the one that had caused the bleeding, was on his leg. After checking his torso, head, and arms she ordered Duke to lay on the other side of him, hoping the warmth might help him awaken. Then she looked at his leg.
His right side, just above the knee, was caked with tacky blood that had crystalized from the cold. Mellie hooked her fingers through the hole in his breeches and ripped it open to examine the wound. A wide and jagged gash wrapped around the side and back to the fleshy part of his thigh. It looked as if something had punctured deep and then been ripped out at an angle, causing a thick flap of muscle to peel away from the bone. “Christ.”
Mellie pressed the wound closed. Blood, thickened from the cold, oozed out from the edges. She wiped her bloodied hands across the snow to clean them. In her pack she found a length of linen and began winding it around his thigh, tight, and she heard him groan. “Thank god.” She breathed a sigh of relief, though he was far from out of danger.
She slung his arm over her should and came up on her knees, hauling him into a sitting position. It was only then she realized how tall he was. Mellie was kneeling and his head still rested comfortably on her shoulder.
HIs limp body doubled over and the hood of his cloak fell away. Long black hair was gathered into a queue at his neck and several silky strands freed themselves, brushing over her chin. He smelled like herbs and citrus. Oranges. A scent she hadn’t encountered for many years.
Mellie patted him roughly on the back. “Time to wake up.” Nothing. “Please.” He didn’t move. “Wake the hell up!” Clearly, he wasn’t going to come around any time soon.
She lowered him back to the snow. Looking around she tried to figure out what to do. No one was coming down this road again today. Possibly not even this week or month or until spring. Her cottage was miles away and there was no way she’d be able to carry him on her own. And he was too big to sling over Duke’s back.
She needed to improvise. And quickly. The wind was beginning to grow wild and she could tell a brutal storm was about to descend on them. They would need to make quick work of the journey ahead of them or risk getting caught in a deadly whiteout.
Luckily, the snow that had already fallen would act as a protective cushion if she could build some sort of makeshift sleigh. Decision made, she worked fast with the few tools she had. A fur with a thick hide served as her sleigh. She rolled him on top of it, wrapping him up, and attempting to cushion his head with a wool blanket. The leather belts that held those two items in a roll attached to Duke’s pack became straps, keeping the fur secure around him. Finally, she tied some rope to one corner of the fur, wove it through one side of Duke’s harness and out the other, then tied it to the remaining corner. of the fur.
“Geh!” She shouted and Duke took off for home.
Late into the night, Mellie and Duke trudged up the final stretch of hills separating them from her small, stone cottage, which sat nestled in a canyon in the shadows of the Gantrisch mountain range, just outside the Suisse city of Bern. Duke led the way, their unconscious guest still bundled and dragged behind him.
The storm moving in had thus far been slow. The wind had become fierce, blowing Mellie’s white hair sideways and threatening to knock her off her feet. She’d had to rely heavily on Duke’s tracking skills when she normally would have been able to find her way back on her own. The familiar landscape, lush with evergreen trees and thick with sage moss, had become nothing more than a white haze. Drifts of snow had blown over the paths and trails she was accustomed to, making the journey treacherous. Even Duke was short on energy. But as of yet, the sky had not opened up and unleashed its fury on them.
“Duke, bleib.” Mellie called out for Duke to stay just as he reached the cottage, then petted his head as she passed. “Zie brav.” She opened the door and nearly fell inside, exhausted and hungry. She needed food, but first she needed to deal with the man and his injured leg.
Half an hour before, he had still been breathing, but he hadn’t stirred or made a single sound since she’d wrapped his wound. He was likely lingering on the edge of death, and if not, he would be soon.
Leaving him on the floor, Mellie first focused on getting a fire going. He would have a deep chill and needed to be warmed before anything else. She tossed wood from a pile in the corner into the stone hearth that divided the middle of the cottage and quickly got it going with her flint and steel.
With the fire blazing, she finally began dismantling the tattered sleigh. It had held up well enough, but it hadn’t covered his feet and she was worried about gangrene. She flipped the fur covering to the side, then worked the buttons of his cloak open. The wool fabric was stiff, as if it had been dunked in water and set out in the freezing cold. “I should have taken this off of you.”
Certain she would find him frozen solid, she wrenched open the cloak, only to gasp at what he was wearing beneath. A sapphire blue overcoat covered him almost from his neck to his knees. She leaned in, wanting a closer look at the heavily embroidered garment. Patterns of vines and flowers were woven with delicate silver thread and embellished with so many variations of pinks, greens, and violets it inspired visions of wild flowers. It was lined with velvet and hid a matching waistcoat. Wide cuffs, folded up almost to his elbows, and frilly, stark white shirtsleeves peeked out from the edges.
“So fine,” she whispered in awe, her hand sliding over his chest of its own volition. To feel the luxurious satin texture. Oh, she’d seen some fine clothing before. But this… Never anything like this. Mellie could have sat and admired his garments for ages, but there would be time for that later. She’d noticed the bandage on his lower thigh had soaked through and the bottom of his coat, as well as the inside of his cloak, were sopping with blood.
Then she saw his hands. He wore no gloves. “Are you daft?” She burst out in surprise, her eyes snapping to his closed ones as if he could answer. “You bloody fool!”
Mellie lifted his hand to rub some warmth into it. His finger were stiff, the tips reddened. She checked his other hand and found it similar to the first, but the pads of his small finger and thumb also felt hard to the touch. Pulling off his boots, she found his feet in much the same condition. It was not good, but all things considered, she’d expected worse.
Grabbing a large pot from the hearth, Mellie dashed outside to fill it with snow. Fat snowflakes were now coming down between the trees, furiously whipping around from the thrust of the angry wind. A blast of hail pelted her in the face, stinging her skin and forcing her to shield her eyes. She packed the pot tight, knowing the snow would melt down, and stumbled back inside, forcing the door closed behind her.
“Bad news, Duke,” Mellie called breathlessly. “No dinner tonight.” Duke whined and plopped his head down onto his paws. “Hey, it’s not my fault. You’re the one who let the stag get away.” He answered with a whimper and went to hide in a corner.
Mellie placed the pot on the floor near enough to the fire to melt the snow, but far enough not to overheat it. She needed to warm his limbs in increments, with progressively warmer water. As she waited for it to be ready, she removed his wet and bloodied clothes. Just until she reached the dry layers. It was enough to start getting him warm and focus on his wound.
With a knife, she tore the leg off his breeches. The gash was severe. It was the kind of injury that could fester and lead to fever. Lucky for him, he was unconscious, because cleaning and sewing it up was going to hurt like the devil.
He was trapped in a nightmare. An endless, torturous nightmare. For a moment he wondered if he’d died and gone to hell. Except he was cold.
Beyond shivering. Beyond feeling.
Frozen into a stillness that reached his bones. He could not move. He could not think. He could not even pray. He just…was.
All he knew was that he was caught somewhere between life and death and there was nothing he could do about it, except wait for it all to end.
But it didn’t end. He was aware of something happening. Of being pulled for what felt like ages. Flying over rolling hills, catching air, and the feeling of being weightless before hitting the ground. Like when his horse jumped a fence. Except, he was not on his horse. He was nowhere. Or was he simply existing between the Earth and the sky? In some sort of limbo. Purgatory.
He had no idea. The longer it went on, the more confused he became. The uncertainty chilled him more than the frigid air. There was fear. Except he didn’t know to call it that.
Then there was warmth. Relief.
And then hellfire rained down upon him. He was suddenly on fire. The tips of his fingers and toes burned like someone was holding them to a flame. His skin felt scorched. Singed. It was scalding. Someone was burning him alive. His leg, he was certain, was being sawed off above the knee. He wanted to scream and thrash. Beg for it to stop. Give up. Relent. Ask for forgiveness for whatever he had done. Anything! He would do anything if it would all just be over.
The first thing his mind articulated again, was that he could finally pray.
So, he prayed for it to end. And everything went black.
Mellie would never forget the sound of his screams. She had dealt with injuries before, many of them her own. But the terror. The unintelligible words she could only interpret as begging. The guttural sobs.
All of it would be imprinted on her memory forever.
She’d thought his lack of consciousness would lessen the pain. She’d been wrong. As she dug out the dirt and splinters left behind by whatever unknown object had pierced him, he’d howled like the wind whistling in the sky above. As she poured whiskey over the open flesh, his body stiffened and jolted. And as she pulled the muscle back together with a needle and thread, he had ceased to breathe.
All the while she had winced and cringed. And Duke had buried his head under his paws and whimpered in unison.
Now it was over, he was silent, and Mellie tossed back several fingers of that same whiskey, straight out of the bottle. The heat it spread through her chest only reminded her how painful it could sometimes be to warm up from the cold. That blistering feeling in your extremities as your body tries to make sense of the changing temperature.
She capped the bottle and put it back on the shelf. It was going to be a long night.
Her stranger was bundled up in her bed, alternately shivering and falling so still she wondered if he’d finally succumbed to his injuries and died.
Poor Duke’s stomach rumbled louder than her thoughts. Mellie had lost her appetite, but the beast wouldn’t be so easily put off.
Pushing away from the hearth, Mellie wandered into the vacant side of her cottage, where there was a small table for eating and a storage area where she kept her currently minuscule food stores. The season had so far been unlucky for her. Her traps had, for the most part, remained bare. Fish had been abundant during the summer, and she’d dried, salted, and smoked a variety of them. But it was already January, and this far into the winter, Duke had already eaten his way through most of it.
Mellie tossed Duke a sparse dinner of fish and the last of the potatoes she’d boiled that morning. “Sorry, buddy. We’re eating light for the next few days on account of the blizzard. And your losing that stag earlier. And because of our visitor.”
Duke had greedily gulped down his food and was staring at her expectantly, licking his chops. When she didn’t give him more, he barked at her. Mellie turned her hands up. “I didn’t eat at all. I don’t supposed you’d spare some dinner for me?”
He snorted and shook his head with a resounding “no”, a gob of drool catapulted out of his mouth and splattered across her tunic.
She nearly retched but managed to hold it together. “Ugh, Duke! You are lucky you’ve saved my arse on multiple occasions.”
The dog just sat there and panted.
“I suppose I do kind of like you.” Mellie would swear he smiled, though his hanging jowls made it impossible. “And you are cute.” She reached down and gave him a deep, two handed scratch behind the ears and Duke enthusiastically licked her face.
“Thank you for the kiss. It was disgusting, but thank you nevertheless.”
Standing, she pulled the tunic over her head and returned to the other room to toss it into a basket of garments that needed washing. Mixed in were the few remaining pieces of her strangers clothes that somehow managed not to end up covered in blood. And hanging in the corner was his gorgeous coat, which was completely ruined, but she was loath the throw it away.
Mellie admired the garment as she stripped off the rest of her clothes. Somehow she would try to salvage it, and a few of the others, if only to give him something to wear once he awakened.
Just then she realized she was standing entirely naked not more than an arms length from where he was sleeping. For a split second she considered covering herself. But only for a second.
“Ah, hell. You’re not waking up any time soon.” She said to him. “And even if you did, maybe the sight would soothe you. You’re going to need something to take your mind away from that pain, and I’m sorry to tell you, but I’ve got nothing but whiskey.”
Whiskey. She might not have much desire for food after the day she’d had, but sitting by the fire with a dram sounded pretty incredible right now. She would kill for a bath, but she would settle for this.
Mellie poured herself a deep cup and dragged the chair she’d dubbed her “throne chair” towards the fire. It was a fairly boxy and uncomfortable seat, high backed, carved from pine with an intricate, looping vine pattern that she’d long believed could in fact be snakes. The edges were worn with time. Several hundred years worth. The seat was topped with a once plush cushion, that might have been red at some point in history, but was now faded and threadbare.
It had been here when she’d found the abandoned cottage four years earlier. Where it had come from, she knew not. But she liked to imagine it belonged to an exiled queen, forced to hide in the mountains, yet unwilling to relinquish the sovereignty that ran through her blood.
Draping a wool blanket over the chair, Mellie settled herself in it as comfortably as she could, propped her feet up by the hearth, and let the heat warm her naked body.
Oh, her stranger would have a sight if he opened his eyes now.
She couldn’t keep calling him that. He needed a name.
Mellie glanced at him over her shoulder. “What should I call you? Just temporarily, you see? Until you can tell me your real name.”
Her stranger, predictably, didn’t respond.
“Reginald.” She offered the name up to the air.
No. That wasn’t a good fit.
“Let us try something more casual. Johnny.”
Definitely not a Johnny. Her first instincts seemed right, was far too formal for that.
“How about…” Mellie tapped her finger on her chin. “Sir Oliver Farthingham the third, Earl of Fancytown.”
She sipped her whiskey, smiling to herself.
“That might get tiresome to say. So, I will simply call you Earl.” He was a nobleman of some sort, of that much she was certain.
Decision made, she raised her cup and saluted him. “Welcome to my lovely home, Earl. Wish it was under better circumstances, but it is nice to have a visitor.”