I felt no pain now; not the weariness from my headlong flight, not the burning of the pain in my fingers, nor the bone deep chill in my limbs. The cold brought peace and the desire to sleep. If this was what Earth wished for me, I resigned myself. This sleep would be my last.
As if from far away I became aware of the sound of voices. Almost unconscious, I had not the strength to move and so could not indicate to them that I lived. Truth be told, I knew I hovered near death. Perhaps Earth had no further need of me and would allow me to sink back into her eternal embrace. Is that what I wanted, to be free from my duties to Earth, released from my gifts? I had not had a choice in receiving them.
Perhaps rescue would be no more than a wishful dream. But no, this was real. I had been found. The voices above me penetrated dimly through the foggy haze of my awareness.
“Ho, what is this?” I heard one mumble as he stumbled over my cocoon of branches, leaves and snow, and his boot uncovered a patch of my red cloak. With my seer’s sight I sensed him scrabble the remaining cover of snow, leaves and branches away with his hands.
“Farsh! Merrist! Over here!”
“Hey, watch out! That branch almost took my eye out,” one complained as he emerged out of the trees to stand behind the one who had discovered me.
“Not so loud!” cautioned the other as he joined his companions. “Do you want to be heard? Corrin will not thank you if we are taken.”
“What have you there? A woman? Is she dead? What is a woman doing in the snow here?”
My discoverer stopped trying to tug me out of my burrow, put me back down and checked. “She breathes, barely. Help me get her to the cabin, or she may yet die.”
“I do not know if that is a good idea. She will learn our location. Corrin will be furious! Best to let her stay where she is.”
“What? That is murder! Have you no honour, Farsh? Corrin may not be pleased but he would not expect us to let her die.” I could hear eagerness in my finder’s voice. “Merrist, run ahead and stoke up the fire. Put the blankets close to heat them. We need to warm her up if she is to live, though I fear it may be too late already.” He grunted with effort to lift my lax form from its cocoon. “Come on, Farsh, give me a hand!”
Farsh bent to help, grumbling half-heartedly, “I like this not, Larn.” Then, curiosity overcoming reluctance, he added, “How came she here, do you think?”
“Mayhap she will tell us when she wakes. Get ahead and put a kettle on. She will need hot tea when she does…if she does.”
I sensed the excitement their find brought the one called Larn. This mystery called to his imagination. His thoughts came through clearly. She is no peasant. I can tell even through the dirt that she is young. And her clothes are fine, so she had not been poor. What tale might she tell? What brought her to this outpost, hidden deep in the woods? Whose side is she on? The questions tumbled over one another in his mind.
I experienced, with my sight, what Larn thought and felt as he carried me, my ability heightened by contact. His awareness became mine. I hope Lord Dugal is not too angry. What a find! Three moons in this cabin and nothing happens. And now a woman finds us…no, we found her. Surely a woman can pose no threat.
I caught the smell of wood smoke as Larn followed his nose. Through his eyes I beheld the small, rough cabin that served as safe house for his young lord. Soon I could sense the glow from the hearth fire seeping out from behind the oiled leather that covered the small window. The door opened, and I saw Merrist limned by the light of the fire.
“I cleared the bed. You can lay her down there.” Merrist closed the door tightly as we entered, then pressed close behind, as my rescuer carefully lay me on a straw mattress.
“We best see she does not get away,” Farsh worried, standing behind the other two. But in him, too, I could tell that concern had overcome reticence, and I knew he hovered behind the others.
“We need to undress her and get the warm blankets on her.” Two opposing needs warred in the young man’s mind. She needs to be warmed up but she might not take kindly to three strange men seeing her without clothes on. Finally, need overcame decorum, and he began to tug at my cloak.
“Her clothes are all wet. Help me get them off.” I sensed the exact instant his eyes fell on my left hand. He looked up at his friends, all of his previous eagerness replaced by shock. “Oh, dear Earth, she has been tortured! Look!” He held up my hand for the others to see.
I knew what they had discovered. The two outside fingers of my left hand each ended in a pulpy red mass, stark against the icy white of the rest of my hand. My nails had been torn off in an unsuccessful bid to get me to divulge the whereabouts of Lord Merlost’s wife and children.
I felt Larn shudder, and sensed him imagining the pain in his own fingers. He looked at his friends and I knew he saw the same horror mirrored in their eyes.
A low moan, unbidden, escaped my lips. I could not hold it in. At that same moment I understood death would not claim me today.
The men’s conversation reached me clearly now, with normal hearing. I felt the warmth of the cabin begin to insinuate itself into my body. It awakened my conscious mind, much against my will, while it increased my pain.
“Help me get her undressed. Hurry. Get a blanket around her before she wakes. She will be frightened enough, without waking to strange men undressing her.”
I caught an image from him, imagining my reaction if I came to while being mauled by three ruffians.
Mercifully, I managed to feign unconsciousness until after they had replaced the heated blanket three more times. Gradually, as the warmth brought heat to my blood, I began to shake, unable to control myself, an effect of the cold beginning to leave my body. Even then, I did not allow them to see signs of my waking.
Without warning, and completely beyond my tight efforts at control, I lifted my injured hand away from my body and moaned again. I forced it slowly back to the bed as if it had never happened. I knew, then, I would have to let them see that I was awake.
All three jumped back from the sound, eyes wide with shock.
“It must have been the heat,” Merrist offered. “I have had frostbite. When the flesh warms, the pain is almost unbearable.” His voice hushed in empathy. “It will happen again I think. What can we do for her?”
Before the others could respond, the door flew open, banging hard against the inner wall.