He was dead. Of that much he was certain. Whether he had landed in heaven or hell was another question altogether. Wherever he was, the space around him turned, passing in a slow and endless disorienting spin. He floated in the corner of a darkened room, lit only by flickers of orange light and an occasional blinding flash of white. The following roar of thunder set forth a cacophony of mysterious rattling that chanted alongside the shrieking wind to form a harrowing chorus.
Parts of his body still throbbed and burned. The pain in his thigh so intense it nearly consumed him. Flames licked at the soles of his feet, scalding them. He was roasting on the spit. Or perhaps submerged in boiling water. He wasn’t quite sure which, but he didn’t need to be to believe he’d gone to Hades.
He had been trying to get his bearings for some time before he noticed her. She emerged from the shadows only with the flashing sky, remaining for nary a moment before melting again into the darkness. White hair cascaded over the back of an ancient wooden chair. It shined, smooth and bright, like the top layer of a frozen pond. Each crack of lightning revealed another part of her. An arm dangled off the side of the chair, fingers whispering against the floor as her chest rose and fell in a steady cadence. A long graceful neck, reminiscent of a swan. The gentle curve of a feminine calf and a delicate foot peeked out from beneath a tragic gray blanket.
Tragic that it hid the rest of her. The pieces of her he ached to see right then and there. That he needed to see in that very instant. Because he already knew that every inch of her was stark white. White as the blinding light that lit her up through the windows. White as the snow that fell outside. White as the hottest flame. So white she could be molten silver or pure silk. And in that moment, so long as his eyes remained fastened to her, he could convince himself that maybe he was heaven bound after all.
Hours passed. He tried desperately to keep his eyes on her, afraid to drift off and find himself alone. Back in Satan’s clutches. Eventually the fire dwindled down to a low, glowing ember, and he began to see their breaths turn into hazy plumes of air and dissipate, only for one to be replaced by another.
Their breaths. They were breathing. He was breathing.
He was alive.
He could hardly grasp the reality of it. Nothing about the world made sense, but the knowledge brought him a measure of comfort he badly needed, and he finally let himself drift off into a deep but restless sleep.
When Addison Kent next awakened everything was silent and he was alone in an unfamiliar place. The stillness was disquieting. Disorienting. A fuzzy kaleidoscope of memories circled his minds eye. Debilitating cold. Blinding Pain. Hell’s wrath. A fury of wind and snow. The chilling sounds of creaking wood and the clattering of glass and metal.
And the white woman.
He searched the room for her and noticed the decaying chair she’d been sleeping on near the hearth. It stood empty now, the gray blanket neatly folded and placed on the seat.
The rest of the small room was spartan and somber. Hovel was the best word for it. Unfit for human habitation, as far as he was concerned. There was a diminutive desk wedged into the corner across from the bed he lay in, with a stool made from a slab of wood and spindly tree branches for legs. A torture device to be certain, for one would be in constant fear of it crumbling beneath them. The chair by the hearth marked the only other furnishing in the room.
Shelves brimming with unidentifiable knickknacks lined the stone walls. Bottles and jars filled with liquids, powders, and dried herbs. Metal contraptions that served unknown purposes were crammed into every corner. The hearth was decorated with pots and pans and kettles. Wooden and metal utensils with holes at their ends were crowded onto lengths of tied cords. And inside the archway, where the fire burned, were two menacing iron spikes, large enough, he was sure, to skewer an entire man.
The more he discovered, the more uneasy Addison felt.
Near the door, rows of hooks held a series of progressively frightening items. The first few were draped with coats, capes, and hoods made of furs and leather, their color black as night. Beside those hung a belt with dozens of loops and pouches stuffed to the gills. Addison did not want to know what with. And he wasn’t sure he wanted to know, anyhow. The loops held a bevy of weapons. An axe and a collection of sheathed knives of various sizes and shapes. A bow, arrow, and matching quiver rested neatly over a third hook. And beyond that, there were saws. All kinds of saws. Long with giant, jagged teeth. And small, with sharp ridges meant for precision. And everything in between.
It was the stuff of nightmares. A madwoman’s remote chamber, where she brought the injured to perform experimental procedures on them. Where they could scream and no one would hear. His heart began to beat frantically. He could remember his own screaming, in this very room.
Addison closed his eyes, attempting to steady his now rapid breathing. What sort of mess have I landed myself in?
“No.” He mouthed the word, but no sound came. He was just tired. Badly hurt and probably sick. He reassured himself and reopened his eyes to search for something in this clutter that might offer him another explanation.
Eventually he noticed a pile of at least twenty pairs of spectacles spilled precariously across a shelf next to the bed. Some old and dusty. Others looked new and unworn.
And while the sight of them didn’t provide him any answers, they did help him recall a collection of blurry memories. Memories that calmed him. He realized that this woman, whomever she was, had brought him here to heal him, not hurt him. She’d tended to his wounds, unwrapping and rewrapping his hands more times than he could count. Yes, each time she’d done so, it had reawakened the blistering heat that seared the tips of his fingers and toes. But that pain had not been caused by her.
And what had been the most excruciating injury he’d ever suffered had finally dulled into nothing more than a pulsing awareness. He had the distinct feeling that he would be dead, if it were not for her.
Though barely conscious at the time, he recalled the woman examining his thigh. Her hair had brushed along his skin. It had felt as if someone had drawn a length of cool satin across him and he’d relished in the pleasure of it. When she wasn’t poking and prodding, she’d cooled him with a damp cloth, pressing it tenderly to his neck and brow, offering at least a small measure of relief.
No matter how unsettling his predicament was or how formidable the white woman and her hovel may appear, Addison knew she had done nothing but aid him. And for that, he would be grateful.
Taking a deep breath, he scanned the room again. His eye latched onto a dented pewter pitcher resting on the foot of the hearth. Beneath it, a mountain of brown and white fur seemed to be breathing. He was clearly delirious with thirst.
Addison stared longingly after the water. Rivulets of condensation rolled down its exterior and collected into a small puddle. It drew his attention to his parched throat. His tongue felt thick and it stuck to the roof of his mouth.
Where is a servant when I need one?
Just when was about to attempt the short journey across the room, he heard a shout from outside.
His head whipped around towards the window at his side to find the white woman peering through it. Her hand shielded her eyes above an odd pair of green spectacles.
“You’re finally awake!” She tapped on the window before disappearing, then reappearing a moment later in the now open doorway. “I was beginning to worry about you.”
He followed her path around to the side of the bed when his gaze suddenly collided with a gargantuan beast that seemingly appeared from nowhere. If his throat hadn’t been as dry as the Sahara, he might have screamed. As it was, physical discomfort all but forgotten, he nearly leaped to the other side of the bed. He gasped, choked, and sputtered, then fell into a ceaseless coughing fit.
“Sitz!” The breathing pile of fur resumed its place by the fire and the woman turned to him. “He’s harmless, I assure you.”
“Wa- Water,” Addison somehow managed to scratch out.
“Of course.” She poured a liberal amount of water into a metal cup and returned, sitting on the bed beside him. Addison tried unsuccessfully to lift himself up and she slipped her cool white fingers behind his head. An unfamiliar sensation, not unlike a jolt from static electricity, shot down his spine. Another time he might have lingered on that feeling; examined it.
Instead he guzzled the startlingly cold water. It sloshed over his chin and dripped down his neck.
“Easy,” she said softly, trying to pull the cup away, but Addison grabbed her wrist with his bandaged hand and held it, dinking until the cup was empty.
“More,” he demanded, his throat still raw and coarse.
“I tried giving you water many times over the past few days, but you to pushed it away.”
That settled it. He was definitely delirious. No man in his right mind would push her away, even wearing those bizarre green spectacles. “I apologize for my ill-bred behavior.”
“It’s no matter.” She started to bring the cup back to his mouth, but pulled it away again. “Drink it slowly.” Then she waited for him to nod in agreement before rewarding him by pressing the cold metal to his parched lips. He felt like the god damned dog, but he was too thirsty to argue.
Quiet settled between them while he sipped at the cool liquid. “Tell me your name.”
She seemed taken aback by his brusque tone and he wondered if the woman had ever met a noblemen before. She seemed to know who he was and yet she had not curtsied or addressed him properly. At the very least, she owed him her name.
He’d expected something more whimsical, more poetic. Something that matched her uncommon skin tone. The name Dove seemed a missed opportunity.
He’d also expected her to provide her surname. Depriving him of it, denied him the ability to address her properly. As Miss Whomevershewas. But his throat still felt sticky, so he took another sip of water and decided to save himself the effort of admonishing her for her poor manners. Mellie was obviously a misbegotten cretin relegated to the outskirts of society. “You said that I have been here for a few days.”
Mellie stared at him, as if she were waiting for something.
“Are you mute?”
She gaped at him. “I beg your pardon?”
Addison sighed. “I asked you a question.”
“No, you did not.”
Perfect. Of all the places to fall injured, he had to do it here, with an empty-headed woman only capable of uttering her name. A few sentences, at most. Or perhaps a bit more than that. Either way, she was addlebrained.
“You made a statement,” Mellie continued. “I was waiting for you to finish your thought.”
“How many days have I been here?” Addison gritted through his teeth, making his aggravation abundantly clear.
He brought the water again to his mouth and the impertinent chit grabbed the cup from him just as he tipped it. The last of the water inside spilled over his chest and she tossed a rag at him to clean it up.
“I’ll once again forgive you for your ill-bred behavior, as I am sure you are feeling a trifle…perplexed by your whereabouts.” She held up a hand to silence him when he opened his mouth to respond. “To answer your question, it has been three days. Well, four if you count the day I found you. But we did not arrive here until late that night.”
“How far are we from Germany?”
“Germany? Many days, weeks, I’m afraid.”
Addison’s eyes widened, a wave of panic washed over him as the fog he’d been in finally lifted. He tried to sit up. “I need to go.” He leaned on his hand and his fingers exploded in a white hot blaze of pain. He hissed as he cradled his it to his chest.
Coming quickly to her feet, Mellie pushed him back down. “You mustn’t put any weight on your hands. They are covered in blisters and I’m afraid you may have just burst them.”
“You might have warned me!” He growled through clenched teeth.
“I am sorry. But-” Ignoring her Addison tried to push her away. Only she was surprisingly strong. “Please, do not get up. Your feet are in much the same condition.”
“I need to get to Wittenberg straight away.” Addison could hear the alarm rising in his own voice. Four days. It had been four days. Which meant he was already too late, but he had to try anyway.
Mellie held him down by the shoulders. He was weak but fully prepared to do battle with her if she tried to keep him in this godforsaken bed for one second longer. “Let me up!” He pleaded.
“We are much closer to Bern, but even without your injuries, you would not be able to get there either.”
Whether Addison had finally succeeded in pushing her away or Mellie had decided to let him up, he couldn’t be certain. But as he flung the heavy furs off of his body he begrudgingly admitted to himself that it was probably the latter. “Ridiculous.”
The room was so frigid it nearly stole his breath away. Yet, the soles of his feet burned when they hit the ground. As he stood, the tight skin on his thigh stretched and felt ready to split open. “Ah!” He doubled over, nearly falling to his knees, but Mellie was there to catch him.
“Your injuries are severe,” she explained. “Surely you can see you cannot manage it.”
“Then-” he gasped, working his way to the door, leaning on Mellie as he moved. “Then you must get me there.”
Her demeanor shifted then and she gritted out angrily, “I will get you to the door and that is all! If only for you to see that I cannot take you anywhere.”
“You brought me here. If you did that, you can get me to Wittenberg, or Bern. You can get me somewhere!” He might have laughed at the glaring obviousness of it, had he been less concerned about the situation at hand.
Mellie helped him to the entryway, his whole body objected. The bottoms of his feet felt scorched, as if he were walking on hot coals. Upon reaching it, she flung open the door. White light instantly blinded him. It consumed the outside world, beaming to and from every corner. He shaded his eyes and waited for his sight to adjust. Soon enough he was able to make out the thick layer of snow that covered everything in sight. If there had been any nearby roads or paths, and he wasn’t convinced there were, they would be covered, too.
“There was a storm,” Mellie said. “Further out the snow is up to my waist. It is impassable and will remain so for quite some time.”
Addison stood there, ready to collapse. A sickening feeling formed in his gut. He remembered now. The thunder and lightning. The sheets of white pouring out of the sky. That he’d been trying to make it to Bern before the weather worsened, so he might send word on to his family and to Wittenberg.
A gentle breeze rolled in from the North, rustling the hair on his head and raising goosebumps across his body. He looked down. “Where the bloody hell are my clothes?”