1 – Starvation and Strangers

The cold had already set in, thoroughly, making the ground near impenetrable under the thick layer of snow. Her little shovel had broken, shortly after she had started digging; it was foolish to keep at it, but everyone needed food to live, Saelina was no exception.

Her nails were broken and torn, her skin caked in blood and mud and whatever feeling she had left in her hands was only enough to let her know the earth was noticeably colder than the air. Anger was what kept her going, fury at being reduced to this state and loathing for the necessity of tearing up her limbs just to have something to stuff into her mouth. A lock of ringlet curls fell into her face and she calmly paused to push it back under her head scarf.

The temptation of allowing her emotions to take over and tear into the ground, yelling and raging about the unfairness of her life, was ever present, looming in her mind but she kept her rage firmly in check and methodically fed the energy into her endeavor, keeping her tempo steady.

The gray sky was darkening above her but she kept at it, knowing that stopping meant going to bed hungry, something she had not even considered, that same morning

She pushed away the memory, not allowing herself to feel the confusion and despair which would no doubt be evoked by that train of thought. Instead, she turned her attention to the soil; Mahlein had some of the worst in Lissón, completely unsuitable for farming. Having no money here was essentially a death sentence. Foraging was next to impossible, at least for anyone who wanted to do anything more than barely survive.

She paused when she saw a glimpse of pale yellow; a mixture of triumph and exhaustion washed over her. With quick movements she cleaned the dirt away from the roots and picked one up, looking it over. She froze when she caught a small dark spot on the skin.

The tunneling mark of a blightworm was unmistakable; she looked down at the others, her sense of defeat quickly drowning out the last of her spirit as she took them up, one by one, only to find almost all of them marred by the same black spots. When she was done, there were three tiny roots in her basket, along with the kindling she had scrounged up, not even enough to feed a child, let alone a full-grown woman, pushing thirty.

It would have been so easy to give in to despair; to fall down wailing, like a banshee, at the sunset. It was not who she was, however, and once again she rekindled the embers of anger within, letting the flame fuel her where no sustenance was present. She rose, cold and determined and turned towards the town of Mahlein. While the individual houses were not discernible at this distance, the Lord's Tower was unmistakable, rising far above the sleepy homes; the sight of it stoked her ire and she felt her jaw clench as the memory of that place strained to burst forth. Before it could happen, she lowered her eyes and fixed them on the white ground as she started making her way back.

On the way, she examined her hands with concern; their condition was perfect for the onset of an infection, something which could easily spell the end of her life. She needed to clean the wounds, even if the only means was an icy stream. As loathe as she was to let the cold sink even deeper into her bones, it was far the preferable alternative to ending up sick.

With a heavy, sigh she changed her course a bit and made her way towards the water's edge. She trudged on, through the thick snow, trying to think of ways to stretch her pathetic harvest. Her hovel was near empty and what little she had could hardly be used as food, at least not food a human would want to eat.

As she reached the stream she immediately dropped to her knees, knowing any hesitation might make her regret the idea. She put the basket aside and slid her fingers across the thin layer of ice; the water still flowed, rapidly, underneath. She took a deep breath then crashed both her hands through the ice and into the water; the cold shocked her system and the urge to recoil was near impossible to withstand but instead she locked herself in position, waiting for the numbness to lessen the pain.

The unwelcome memory came again and this time she did not have the fortitude to repress it; she had carried out a job for one of the locals, the day before, and been paid enough to buy food to last a fortnight. She had gone to sleep, filled with thoughts of feasts and fine drinks and woken up to find her whole home turned upside down and the money gone. She had already been living off almost nothing for a week.

She had spent most of the day in a haze of despair, teetering between letting hunger defeat her and desperately searching for scraps of food around town; in the end her instinct to survive had won and she had made her way to the forest to dig for roots.

She found herself wondering whether she was simply delaying the inevitable; was staying alive truly such a boon? She had long since given up her family, dreams, pride, her body and her dignity. All that was left was her breath and while she clung to it, for now, she was not sure there was any point, anymore.

Her pondering was interrupted by the sound of someone blundering through the bushes on the other side of the stream. She looked up to see a woman, looking about her age, tumbling down to the water's edge; she wondered why she had heard or seen nothing prior to this moment. Saelina quickly pulled her hands out and grabbed her basket, ready to run for home.

"Please..." a weak voice called out.

She turned to see the other woman, laying chest down in the snow, reaching a hand towards her.

"Help me."

Apparently, that was all the poor lady was able to muster because she slumped the next second, her eyes closing.

"Fuck," Saelina sighed.

She jumped across the water to take a closer look at the woman. She was finely dressed, her cape alone was worth more than Saelina's house, though that was hardly an accomplishment. The black velvet was embroidered with a delicate silver pattern along the edge of the hood and along the bottom.

Soft brown hair had loosened itself from its elaborate styling, spilling into her face; her skin was smooth, nearly flawless, and a few shades darker than Saelina's pale complexion. The red lips and green eyelids betrayed the expensive products available to this person.

A dark spot on the stranger's back drew her attention and she bend down, until she could make out something small sticking out, through the heavy cape. A broken arrow shaft was visible in the middle of a small circle of blood, slowly spreading on the shoulder. Without help, the woman would die, that much was obvious.

Saelina looked at her measly roots and sticks, trying to weigh the likelihood of getting a reward from the stranger, for her help, against the very real possibility that she might starve or freeze to death if she shared what little she had with someone beyond saving.

Finally, she sighed and put her basket down, before grabbing onto the unconscious woman and hauling her up on her back; she carefully grabbed the basket handle again and groaned as it dawned on her that she would have to walk back upstream to cross the water.

The way home was something akin to torture, as she was struggling to walk upright, while trying not to make the poor victim's injury any worse. It felt like her soaked feet were slowly freezing solid in her shoes and every step felt heavier than the last. Her pants were soaked, below the knees, the upper part was damp and her tattered cape was weighing her down, further.

When she finally reached her home, she was sweating and freezing, simultaneously. She fought her way inside, where she immediately put her basket down and made for the skins, laying next to the fireplace. As carefully as she could muster, she put down her charge, taking great care to keep the wound from touching the ground.

When she was satisfied that the woman was properly placed, she took her time to light up a fire; a slight hesitance crept over her, when she saw the dwindling pile of firewood on the other side of the hearth. She could not get away with the low flame she usually had, not when she had to take care of a wound and undo the damage from the cold. It was yet another sacrifice she would have to make for someone who may take their first opportunity to stab her or worse, yet, die in their sleep. However, the reward, nebulous as it was, could be what she needed to finally get out of the place.

She shook off her doubt and started stacking the wood high enough to ensure a good blaze. When she had lit it up, she took her biggest cauldron and went outside to fill it with snow; the first order of business was boiling water to clean the wound.

After putting the water on the fire she turned her attention to a small shelf, hung by the door; she took down a small jar and hoped what little honey was left in it would be enough for the treatment. Then she got to work. Removing the clothes, carefully, took time and effort; it had been years since Saelina had last gone through the intricate process of loosening and disrobing anyone, wearing the clothes of nobility, but she was in a small way relieved that the majority of her day was no longer dedicated to appear presentable. When she had finally dressed the woman down to take a proper look at the injury, she was dismayed to discover that the arrow had not gone all the way through. Removing the head was gonna be difficult and she was not entirely sure she had the required expertise to do so without making the wound worse, however, she knew leaving it in was not an option.

She quickly readied a knife and dipped it in the now boiling water; when she felt certain it was sterilized, she took it out and waved it around, hoping to cool down the blade, while she readied the cleanest linen she possessed. She sat next to the unconscious woman and started carefully cutting the arrowhead free; it was a laborious task and the blood was making her nervous that she might just be hastening the poor soul's demise. The patient stirred from time to time but did not wake from her slumber.

After what seemed like hours, Saelina managed to remove the metal point and immediately used some cloth, dipped in boiling water to clean what she could, before applying a dressing, with a bit of honey smeared on, to the wound. She bandaged it up, tightly, and put some skins on top of her patient before she proceeded to clean up.

Her hands were shaking badly from the intensity of the procedure. Exhaustion was catching up to her and she was scared she might pass out at any moment. Despite her weariness, she kept working, cleaning blood from the lady's clothes, as best she could, and readying the roots she had found, boiling them with some dried plants, hoping she could force more flavor out than could reasonably be expected.

When the soup was done, she took a small bowl for herself, leaving the bigger meal for her patient for when and if she woke up. The food was ghastly and there was barely anything to taste but she ate it, ravenously, knowing it was all she was going to get.

Her stomach was none too happy with her restraint, loudly complaining at the lack of nourishment. She looked into the cauldron, wondering how much she could get away with eating, while still having enough to feed the woman. Before she truly realized it, she had taken another portion, though a significantly smaller one than her first. She quickly ate it, before peering into the pot, again. She was relieved to find about half of the food, still left and quickly put a lid on, before she took more.

She grabbed her cape and sat down in front of the fire, staring at the flames while she took stock of the day; she had merely wanted to survive the winter but now it looked like she might not survive the week if her new guest decided to croak or ditch her, right after getting better. She unconsciously traced the carnelian in her cape's fastening; the garment had been a present from her older brothers. A stone to match her fiery hair and even more unruly personality, they had told her, fondly. Now, it was in shreds and she was lucky if it would last another month, before completely falling apart.

Her situation had rarely seemed quite so precarious, though often desperate; perhaps it had only ever been a matter of time before her current situation would reach its absolute lowest point. A small part of her argued that there was nowhere to go but up from here but she chuckled, sardonically, at the notion; the grim reality was that there was still further to fall and more to lose. So, why was she gambling it on a knocked out stranger? Was the chance of a reward, any reward which might change her fortune, worth the inevitable risk her aid would bring to herself?

The sound of her door slamming open shocked her into a cowering position, as she looked at the intruder. He was clad in dark blue, edged with gold embroidery from his cloak to his boots; blonde hair was swept into a basic ponytail and clear blue eyes surveyed the house. His stubble was well-trimmed and his broad, angular features gave his expression a certain severity. When his gaze found Saelina, a crooked smirk took form.

"Hello, my dear."

Saelina rose from the floor, staring at her guest, defiantly.

"Callum."

He glanced around, again.

"I hear you were the unfortunate victim of a burglary. I did always warn you to be careful in the slums."

She hissed out her breath, feeling an all too familiar urge to punch his smug face.

"It would seem you were right," she said, flatly.

She knew he was not fooled by her demeanor; he was always aware of what to say to really get to her. Conversing with Callum was inviting him into one's mind to wreak havoc. It was a "pleasure" he would never forego bestowing upon her. He came closer, his eyes running up and down her body. She stifled the shivers which seemed to pour forth from her soul. When his gaze stopped at her hands, she tried to hide them but was too slow and he quickly grabbed one and stared at it in horror.

"What happened to your fingers?"

It was less a question and more a demand that she tell him. She pulled herself free.

"I needed to find food and this was the cost."

"I've told you, countless times, Saelina, if you need help, you need only ask."

He placed a gloved hand on her cheek; once upon a time, she would have leaned into the touch. Not so long ago, she would have smacked it away but it had only ever enticed him further, so now, she did nothing.

"I've had enough 'help' from you to last a lifetime."

She could not keep the venom from her voice, even though she knew he reveled in it. Callum sighed dramatically and let his hand drop, much to her relief.

"I suppose I do deserve that. Though, to be fair, if you really want to blame someone, shouldn't you point the finger at yourself?"

The bait was old and so was any response she might think of.

"What do you want, Callum?"

He hesitated for a moment.

"Now, is that any way to talk to your betters?"

She swallowed a dry retort and cast her gaze down, as was appropriate for her station.

"Tonight is not a good time, Lord Harrow."

He chuckled wrapping an arm around her waist.

"Since when has that ever stopped us?"

He started kissing her neck, occasionally letting his tongue grace her skin. She suppressed her revulsion and made a gesture towards her sleeping area.

"I have a guest, tonight. She's asleep but I can't guarantee she'll stay that way."

He barked out an incredulous laugh.

"A guest? You? What, did you find a badger in the woods and bring it back?"

He returned his attention to the area right below her ear, nibbling playfully.

"I can assure you, she's human, sir."

He still made no motion to release her, rather getting more insistent, to the point of almost biting her and she knew she had to push.

"But perhaps you no longer mind the townspeople knowing?"

She tried to let a small note of hope sneak into her voice.

"Are you finally ready to admit your love for me, my lord?"

She could feel him stiffen and took advantage of the opening. She turned her face to him, her eyes filling with tears.

"You'll finally tell my family the truth? Tell them why our engagement was broken? How you've been sneaking out here, to see me, all those years?"

He started sliding away from her, his arm slithering off her waist as he took a step back; she went for the kill, taking a step towards him.

"Lord Harrow, if only you could explain! Tell them I never strayed and the-"

"I can see it was a mistake, coming tonight," he interrupted her, harshly.

He backed out of the house, clearly unnerved by the idea of someone hearing Saelina's words. She let her face fall into a mask of despair as she took another few steps; his raised hand stopped her in her tracks.

"You're clearly very upset, miss. I'll see myself out."

She held her breath while he exited and closed the door firmly behind him, and she dared not release it until she could no longer hear his footsteps. She silently thanked the sleeping stranger, feeling some satisfaction that she had finally made Callum Harrow regret visiting her, at night.

"Well, that was...intriguing," a smooth voice purred, behind her.

She spun around to see her patient watching her from the skins, leaning lazily on one arm. For a moment, Saelina was unsure what to do or say. The stranger said nothing and merely observed her. Finally, she went to the fireplace.

"I've left some food for you," she noted as she readied a bowl and handed it to the injured woman.

The lady sat up and slowly took a sip; it was clearly below her usual standards but Saelina was not about to apologize for having no money and the stranger was gracious enough not to comment.

"I suppose I have you to thank for not lying dead in a snowy forest, somewhere?" she asked, instead.

"I dragged you back here and patched you up, as best I could."

The lady's perfectly shaped eyebrows raised, slightly, at the terse answer.

"I see. And I suppose you would like a reward for your services?"

"That was my main motivation for helping you."

It was the plain and simple truth, Saelina was not about to deny it, to seem noble. The other did not seem offended or disappointed in the answer.

"I see. I never expected to be indebted to a beggar girl, of all things."

Saelina shook her head.

"I'm not a beggar."

Her guest glanced around the place and she was aware her answer seemed implausible.

"I have begged, in the past. But it's no longer an option," she explained, calmly.

The woman shrugged.

"Far be it from me to question someone's methods of survival."

Saelina did not answer.

"So, what is you name, non-beggar?"

"Saelina."

"No family name?"

"Not anymore."

For a moment, it seemed there was going to be more questions but the guest thought better of it, and finished her soup, instead, before handing the bowl back.

"For what it's worth, my name's Tahlisa Sorram."

Saelina nodded in acknowledgment.

"You should rest, Miss Sorram."

The woman smiled, enigmatically.

"Indeed. I look forward to learning more about you, miss Saelina."

Saelina could not help but feel slightly unnerved by the stranger's words.