“Doesn’t do any good to latch the door Fel if you don’t latch the windows. All I had to do was pull back the shutters and push the window open to climb inside,” I heard Cor scold.
I gave him a bleary eyed look and knew I should have some smart answer handy but couldn’t find where I had left it. Even had I found it I was unable to use it as a series of booming coughs left me gasping for breath.
“Teach you to take a dip in Tumbler’s Spring this time of year.” He was teasing me. I knew he was teasing me but I was having trouble remembering why, then it clicked.
“It was either me,” I rasped. “Or Topher followed by most of the other boys. I still haven’t taught them not to walk like a bunch of ducklings all stepping on top of each other. And half of them don’t even know how to swim. We would have been digging floaters out of the spring for who knows how long.” I started coughing again and then tried to push him away so I could get out of bed and get something to drink.
“Yeah, it was you worrying about pulling out floaters and had nothing to do with the fact that you play big sister to them little orphan boys every chance you get.” He shot back at me. Then as I continued coughing around what Gran would call post nasal drip he asked me, “How long have you been coughing like this? Wait. Don’t tell me let me get the door open and you can tell them at the same time.” Following the insistent knocking followed by Cor sliding the latch back, in came Mrs. Wiley and Lollie Hudson who wasn’t just a midwife but one of the village yarb women. If their tut- tutting was to be believed, neither one of them thought much of the sounds I was making.
After a few minutes where I learned that I was in no shape to get my way Lollie declared, “It’s not down in her lungs but all that snot needs to break loose and come out if for no other reason than so she can rest. Someone needs to keep the fire going so she doesn’t catch a worse chill and make sure she gets enough to drink. She seems to know what she’s doing … gargling with cayenne, honey, salt, and cider vinegar … so the only thing I’m going to add is a warm ginger bath for the aches and pains from rolling down that bank on them rocks.”
Since I’m not fond of being treated like a piece of furniture I groused, “I’m not dead ya know. I’m even in this very room.”
Finally they stopped poking and prying and left me in peace but just as I was dozing off again Cor woke me back up. “Need to sit up Fel unless you want to wear this broth.”
I cracked my eye open and glared at him as balefully as I could but it didn’t seem to have any effect. I finally sighed, “Just leave it. I’ll eat it in a minute.”
“You’ll drink it now or we’ll both be on Mrs. Wiley’s short list. C’mon … here let me help you sit up.”
I coughed and told him, “I don’t need help. I need to be left alone so I can sleep this off. It was just a little dunking for pity sake.”
I felt as limp as a rag doll and about as strong compared to Cor who was manhandling into sitting up and then held the mug to my lips giving me no choice but to drink the flaming stuff or wear it. I finally pushed his hands and gasped, “Enough. You’re worse than Docia. I don’t want to drown in chicken broth.”
The smart aleck said, “Should have thought of that before.”
“Ha. Ha,” I told him tiredly. “Now will you let me be? I just want to sleep.”
He shook his head. “Sorry Fel. Worst is yet to come for both of us. The better you cooperate the faster this will be over with.”
I was only half way listening to him and almost didn’t react to the door of the cabin banging open again. The cold air made me pay attention though. “What the …?” I would have barked it out be all I could do was sneeze when the cold hit my nose hairs. Once I sneezed I started coughing.
I finally got it all under control as the door was closing. I rasped out, “Was that the boys? What are those tree rats doing banging in and out of here like a bunch of half loco calves?”
In this really silly voice Cor says, “Your bath awaits Mistress Fel.”
I looked at him like he had lost his mind. I did not feel like funning. I did not feel like getting out of the bed. I sure as heck didn’t feel up to a bath. All I wanted to do was sleep. Cor’s slightly playful look began to wilt. “Look Fel … I know. I’d feel the same in your place. And what is worse … this game we’re playing has got us and we have to play it out a little further than I figure either of us expected.”
Feeling grouchy I asked, “Are you making sense yet?”
He shook his head. “You’ll be sorry when I do. Mistress Lollie says you need to bathe and wash the sickness off of you and she’s put a bag of chopped wild ginger and something else strong smelling in the water – probably turpentine, rosemary, and camphor giving how it is making my eyes water. The faster we get this started the faster we get this over.”
It took a minute for his words to make it through the fog my brain was in. “The bloody blue blazes we will,” I coughed. “I’ll send you into Tumbler’s Spring for your own dip if you so much as …”
The only thing I got to do was give a weak squawk. He flipped the covers off of me, picked me up, carried me over to the tub, stood me briefly on my feet, grabbed the hem of the night gown, wrenched it over my head, and then plopped me into the water that was hot enough that his manhandling wasn’t the only reason I was making noise.
Looking everywhere but at me he said, “There. That wasn’t so bad. Getting you out is going to take a little more … uh …”
“I … will … skin … you … from one end to the other,” I growled at him. “You give me just one excuse and I’ll do it right now. I …” I started coughing again and the harder I tried to stop coughing the deeper the steam from the bath got into my lungs. I felt his arm go around me and he held me up from behind. I struggled until I realized it wasn’t his arm but a drying cloth I felt on my bare skin.
Finally I was able to get my breath back but felt so weak I was just about ready to lose my composure. Startled Cor bleated, “Hey, you … you aren’t crying are you? Fel, I’m not gonna … uh … hurt you.”
“I … I know. I just … don’t look. Don’t look you hear me?”
“I’m not. Just sit in the tub a few minutes more and let that steam open you up. I need to strip your bed.”
“Nooo. Just go away Cor. I can take care of myself.”
“Nope,” he said shaking his head for emphasis. “Not gonna happen. For one thing this is the week I’m supposed to sleep here and for another I’m not leaving you to cough your insides out by yourself. Francine is already pitching a hissy about germs and how we might have a plague on our hands and I don’t know what all. Even if I wanted to sleep in my room she’d stick me on the sofa in my office rather than risk a cold herself.”
Feeling awful I snapped, “Well then go sleep on your old sofa. Francine can take a flying leap and I don’t care what you say about it. I ought to go sneeze on her just to give her the green willies … her and them wet hen relatives. I swear I’d rather have Muriel and Hazel here acting all sanctimonious than those giggling ninnies always pointing out how cute you two are and how I could learn a thing or three if I would just pay attention to how civilized Princess Francine is and …” He was bending down by the tub and I tried to throw the wet towel at him but he dodged.
“Fel don’t be so upset. Francine isn’t the only reason I’m here and neither is the dem calendar. I … well … I just figured you would be less upset about this if you thought it was.”
Feeling embarrassed about being such a cranky, crybaby I told him, “Oh just go away and stop being so nice. It’s irritating.”
I curled up in the tub and leaned away from him and put my head on the rim, trying not to fall asleep and slide under the water and drown as properly as I almost had when I fell in the spring. It didn’t work; I didn’t drown but I did fall asleep and was being lifted out of the water and wrapped in a big drying sheet before I was fully awake.
Sternly Cor said, “Stop fighting me Fel. You’re going to need your energy to get into some clean …” He stopped talking and sat me in the chair by the fire. Someone – I hope it was Lollie or Mrs. Wiley but I’m too chicken to ask – had laid out a clean night gown (one of the new ones they had sewed, this one out of heavy muslin) and loin cloth and I got the idea from Cor’s rigid profile that his patience was at an end.
“Go over there,” I told him quietly. He did as I asked and I got dressed the best I could. It wasn’t fast but I didn’t need any help. As soon as he heard me making my way back to the bed he turned around and came over and picked me up. I didn’t complain; the floor was cold. I didn’t say thank you either though. I just wanted to be left alone.
I slid back under the covers and was ready to sleep when I heard him pull the chair over to the bed. “Cor honestly,” I sighed. “I’m fine. If you’ve got things you need to do I don’t need a babysitter.”
He didn’t say anything but I could feel him staring at me. “What?” I finally asked.
“You’re … you’re marked up hard.”
If I had had the energy I would have sat up straight in bed. But I didn’t so all I could do was groan. “You said you wouldn’t look.”
“I didn’t mean to,” he admitted quietly. “But once I started … look Fel, I didn’t see anything … er … vital. It was just … too hard … to look away once I realized what I was seeing.” After a minute he asked, “Will you tell me what happened?”
I sighed. “I’m an Outlander. I’m female. I’ve got a mouth on me. Shouldn’t take much more explaining than that.”
“Your … your father … he didn’t …”
“No!” I yelped which started me coughing again. This time a glob of junk came up and I had to spit it into a handkerchief. I made a face. “Da would have killed the men that did this to me only he wasn’t around to do it. Just forget about it Cor. It would take too many stories to explain it all.”
He couldn’t seem to stop. “You … you were lashed. I can’t believe they would do that to a woman.”
He sounded more hurt by what had happened than what I chose to feel about it. I reached out and patted his hand. “I had a way of irritating certain of the men. Mostly because I refused to let them see they scared me. I refused their sexual advances too … sometimes pretty roughly when no one was looking. I tried to be careful but that wasn’t always enough.” I shook my head. “Just let it go. I have. That part of my life is over. All that’s left are the scars. No matter how they tried to control my body I refused to let them get my soul. End of story.”
“I can’t believe you can even … Fel I … I don’t know what to say.”
I patted his hand again since it seemed to make him feel better. “Then don’t say anything. Bad things happen. Sometimes we deserve them and sometimes we don’t. It’s up to us what we take away from it either way.”
“Is that something your father taught you?” Cor asked.
“No. That’s something Gran would say when something bad would happen to a woman of our acquaintance.”
“How can you even … even … I mean … I swear you must hate me.”
Too tired to figure out the logic of that I looked at him and said, “Don’t be stupid. You haven’t given me any reason to hate you. Now can I sleep?”
I groaned when he ignored my question with one of his own. “Haven’t … ?! I dragged you into this … this sham marriage. You’re caught … stuck …”
“Cor, you didn’t drag me into this … your council did and if not them then those Lathrops did. Even then I don’t think I can hate some of the individuals I’ve met. I don’t care for Muriel but I don’t hate her. Hazel … her I could probably live with if I had to; she can be as rough as an old corn cob but she’s honest. Your aunt and uncle are on the council and … and I’m pretty sure I don’t hate them … don’t know them Mona and her husband really but they aren’t bad people from what I can tell. Mona is all right anyway even though she just thinks she knows what’s best for folks; but, the Captain says that this situation has poked holes in that and now she is as touchy about it as Winnie is. I sure don’t hate the Captain – or Winnie – and he’s the one that brought me here. I guess I don’t even hate that Elder Lathrop; he creeps me out but I don’t hate him for it. He seems like he could be nice if I could get passed the lifestyle choice he’s made.”
He still had a confused look on his face so I tried to put it another way. “Cor, I don’t even hate the Headman and he’s the one that did most of the stuff you saw … or ordered it done which is the same thing as him doing it. Hating is just a waste of energy and when you are trying to survive wasting energy isn’t a good thing … it’ll get you killed just as fast as any other mistake. Your Da wasn’t a particularly nice man and you don’t hate him do you?”
He got real still and his face became shuttered. Quietly he said, “I … don’t know. Depends on what day you ask me. He’s messed up my life so badly.”
Pretty sure I was seeing a side of Cor he didn’t share with too many folks I treated it with the respect he’d offered me by sharing it. But I wasn’t going to just let him go on wasting energy either. “Your life is only as messed up as you let it be. You’ve got struggles sure and … and I admire you for not just throwing up your hands and walking away from it all. It took me a little while to see it but you really do care about folks, you’re just not sure you can trust them with you caring about them.” He gave me a look that told me he wasn’t sure he liked someone seeing that part of it. “It’s all right you know. Just because some of ‘em realize you don’t have all the answers doesn’t mean you aren’t still important to them and that they aren’t wanting you to make a success of it as much for yourself as for them.”
Quietly he asked, “How do you know that?”
“The way they talk about it and you. They know your Da didn’t give you a good foundation but they see you trying to build one for yourself. And trying to shore up the one they live on too.” Choosing my words carefully I said, “Your Da made mistakes … sounds like he made a lot of them. It is a good thing you are trying to fix the ones that you can … but you gotta stop letting the ones you can’t fix eat you up. Cor, you Da’s gone and not gonna say he’s sorry for being such a donkey’s behind. I don’t know had he lived if he ever would have. I’m not sitting around waiting for the Headman to say he is sorry for what he’s done to me … it’s water under the bridge that no one can take back. And I’m not gonna let him destroy what future I can pull together either by worrying on him for the rest of my life. He’s gone, out of it. If being blood related to me didn’t matter to him then I’m not gonna let it matter to me and make it out to be more than it was.”
It took a moment for it to sink in. “Wait. You were related to the man who did this to you?”
“He was my Gramp’s nephew. Used to come around the house all the time. He used to be a nice man too as far as them men of my town went; he wasn’t fond of women but he wasn’t mean to them either back then. Only something changed him … power, the desire for power, maybe he got kicked in the head by a mule, who knows and I surely don’t care anymore. Used to ick me out when he wanted to … I mean the laws don’t forbid cousins from making babies but still … Gramp raised him like a son, like a brother for my Ma; I used to think of him as an uncle the same as Daphne does. That he … well, never mind about that. He chose his path and I chose mine. And now I’m here and he’s there.”
“But you have to live with what he’s done.”
“Well sure … but I gotta live with the fact that there are some nice things that he did at some points too. When Gramp died sudden from a sickness in his guts he was right there helping to dig the grave even though it was winter and the ground was almost froze. When Gran’s bones got to hurting really bad, he went and got some powerful medicine from the Lakesider shaman even though we were in a feud with them; that took courage or craziness, still don’t know which. When I went half crazy after them Lakesiders killed my family and I killed them right back, he wouldn’t let the man that was headman back then chopped my head off for being insane. He carried me to the long house himself and told the girls that was already there to get me washed up and keep an eye on me til I come back to myself. People are strange Cor. They aren’t all evil any more than they are all good; I know sometimes it seems that way but it’s not even though you might have to go back a ways to find something good an evil person did. Everyone makes mistakes and everyone does good turns even if they don’t necessarily mean to. I reckon I’ve done enough bad things in this life, whether I did them meaning to or not, that I’ve got my own problems to deal with come Judgment Day. Gramp always said, and my Da said it too just using different words, that we don’t forgive people so much for their sake as for our own. We keep dragging around on our hearts all the bad things that people have done and we’re eventually gonna get to a place where our hearts are so heavy they just give out. Haven’t you ever felt that when you hold a grudge it hurts you more than the person you’re angry at?”
He nodded so I let it sink in. Eventually he said, “My father used to … to talk to me when he wouldn’t talk to anyone else. Most of what he said didn’t make any sense to me at the time and some of it still doesn’t but it was still to me he said those things. And he’d build things for me to play with out of bits and pieces of broken tech; crazy stuff like a wind up dog that walked all on its own … or a catapult that really worked. And he took me on runs even when people said I was too young and … and he taught me about bartering and how to get a good deal and what to watch out for, that people lied or made what they had to be more than what it was. And he taught me how to deal with being disappointed … in deals that go bad and in people that … that …”
He fell silent. After a few minutes he stood up and leaned over the bed and pulled the covers over me. “You warm enough without the bear skin?”
I wasn’t going to say anything about him changing the subject. I figured people can only deal with stuff so much at a time; I know that is how it is for me. “Fire make this place any warmer and we’re gonna feel like we’re in a sweat lodge.”
“Get some sleep Fel. You need to get well. The boys are about to drive everyone to distraction.”
“Then give them something to do to keep them out of trouble. Hard work never hurt no body,” I said yawning.
“They’re just boys and winter can be a dangerous time to be out working.”
I snorted and woundd up sneezing before saying, “And they’re gonna be men before you know it. Wouldn’t it be a lovely thing for them to know what that means before they get there and have to figure it out on their own? I can give ‘em a taste of what it means to be a man but I’m female … they need real men to show ‘em what being a real man means. Who taught you?”
I didn’t really hear what he said but I think he got the idea … and it seemed to give him something to think about besides the mistakes of the past.