Softly, She Treads Ch. 01


Hester, in mute astonishment at her most unwomanly behaviour, climbed heavily to his feet, feeling suddenly clumsy and uncouth beside her, and, leaning against the wall, slowly followed her out.

Though she glanced back frequently, she offered him no assistance as they made their way slowly along the beach, and for this Hester was grateful. His head had started to pound, and he was unaware of his surroundings as he tried to stay upright and close behind her. His eyes remained fixed upon her bare feet in front of him, while his legs shook weakly beneath him. When he paused to vomit dryly, she turned back and stood at his arm, wetting her sleeve with more of her water and wiping it over his face when he had finished emptying himself.

"Not far now - a bit of a climb, then it's easy. Flat and grassy."

Hester nodded silently and suppressed a moan of despair as she started up a natural set of wide, uneven steps carved naturally into the rock. There were only a dozen or so of them, but it took Hester an age to summon his legs to lift, his arms to grasp handholds as he heaved himself up. As he reached the top, she appeared before him, seizing his shirt and pulling him toward her. Steadied by her firm grip under his arms, biting back exhaustion and pain, he made the last few and fell heavily onto the grass at the top.

"I'll be back," she said quietly before rising to her feet. He saw her feet dancing over the grass as she left him alone. He no longer cared; his eyes closed and he started to doze again.

"Come on, up," her voice roused him, her hand tugged at his good arm. He stubbornly refused to move for a moment before, in a softer tone, she spoke again. "There's food, a fire, a bed and as much water as you can fill your belly with. It'll be better soon. Lean on me; it's not far now."

Her quiet sympathy brought a prickle of tears to his eyes as he relented and, with her assistance, struggled once more to his feet. A hundred or so yards away he could see a moss-covered wooden hut, stoutly made, squat and inviting. He nodded, wrapped his good arm around her shoulders and together they made the distance.

She placed him upon the bed, bade him to remain sitting and set about her assumed duties as nurse while he glanced around her home. It was tidy and clean, though she owned nothing of consequence. A handful of blankets and animal pelts, some furniture made inexpertly out of - he guessed - wood from other wrecks, a few pots and jars and a large cauldron hung close over the fire. But it was warm, and he could no longer smell the stink of dogs, stinging his throat.

"Here. Drink this. When you're done, chew these." She knelt on the floor before him and handed him a cup of steaming tea and a handful of flat, pale seeds that had a dark stripe along their centres.

"What is it?" he asked as she began to undress him. He was too tired to resist her.

"That's a brew of marjoram, chamomile and comfrey. Make you sleepy and stop you vomiting. Might help you avoid a fever, too. The seeds are dill; to ease the pain and induce you to rest."

"A Hedge witch?" He laughed uncertainly and sipped at the brew. It was bitter and tasted nothing like its odour. She had sweetened it with something - honey, perhaps.

"If that's what you wish to call it, then yes. A hedge witch. Straighten your arm." Her tone was even, amused, perhaps. He heard no argument in her tone.

He did as he was bade, and she eased the remnants of his shirt over his injured shoulder and down his arm. He gave a hiss of pain, which she ignored as she continued to strip him. "Drink and chew," she repeated, as if directing child. Her tone irritated him, yet he did as he was told.

Moments later, he had imbibed her concoction and had slipped the seeds into his mouth. The moment he had bitten into them, a wave of warmth had spread through him. His head felt groggy, and the thought that he could be being seduced by Satan's advocate brought no rush of panic. When he was naked, she turned him sideways and lay him down. He felt himself slipping into sleep as soon as his head touched the low pillow, and vaguely wished he could remain awake to see what other strange remedies she would produce. But the urge to rest, to let go was too big to resist; he surrendered himself to the beckoning slumber as he did to the ministrations of the strange woman. When it came, moments later, sleep was heavy and deep.

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