Jerica was too focused on the man to notice much about their surroundings as he led her away from the cliff. Before she knew it, they were heading into a spooky house. It was made from gray stone, but somehow felt more ominous than the houses back home. It was too obscured by the fog for Jerica to see how large it might be.
As they entered the house, she could feel a shift in the atmosphere. Outside was cold, and harsh, and dim. Inside was well-lit and smelled of incense. She couldn’t tell where the lighting was coming from. She couldn’t see any torches, and yet the area was clearly illuminated, allowing her to observe bits of the house as they passed.
The first room seemed to be a sitting room. There was a large red rug with blue and yellow patterns stitched into it. On the wall to her right was a large, un-lit fire place, with two chairs sitting next to it. Off to the left was a small kitchen with another fireplace to cook over, and a stone oven, and a small table. He walked her down a narrow hallway, past several closed doors, and finally into a room on the left.
It was a simple room, and fairly small, no larger than her office in the barracks had been. There was a bed pushed against the wall opposite the door. At the foot of the bed was a wooden chest. In the center of the room was a tub filled with steaming water, and a small stool next to it. The man set her down on the stool, then gestured at the tub. “I’ll help you get a bath.”
She glared at him. “Pervert.”
He lifted an eyebrow, looking down at her skeptically. He gestured at her. “What, exactly, do you think has been left to my imagination?”
Jerica looked down at her own body and flushed red with embarrassment. Her abdomen and chest were bare still, and now scraped and bloody. The tumble down the cliff had ripped her trousers in several places, too, so that they barely covered anything. “It’s not my fault.”
“I never said it was,” he answered. “But you stink. And you know as well as I do that a bath will help you feel better once you get the blood and muck off. You’re too injured to manage it alone, and I’m the only option you’ve got for help. So…”
Jerica looked at him suspiciously, but didn’t fight as he gently pulled her to her feet again and walked her to the edge of the tub. His hands moved to her hips and lifted her into the water, much easier than she’d expected he’d be able to move her weight. She was thin, but muscular, and people always seemed surprised by how much she actually weighed.
She hesitated, staring at the man. She was suspicious, but also not quite sure what to do next. If she tried to sit down, she was going to fall over. But the water was pleasantly hot against her legs. The man reached forward and helped her sit down, then handed her a wash cloth and settled back onto the stool.
What’s his game? She dipped the cloth in the water, then brought it up to gently, slowly, begin cleaning the blood and grime off her face. The flesh was tender and swollen, but the cloth seemed to wipe away years of discomfort. She nearly teared up again. Stop it. Instead, she took the bar of soap he offered and lathered up her cloth to scrub the rest of her body.
Nothing about this made sense.
I must be hallucinating. It was the only explanation. Otherwise, who was this man? Why was he living all alone in the middle of a terrifying forest? What did he want with her? Why was he pretending to be kind? The only answer she had was the berries. At least this is a more pleasant dream than I’ve been having.
The pain was intense as she cleaned her scraped chest and abdomen. Maybe it wasn’t a delusion after all. Or maybe I just need more berries. She avoided her shoulder entirely – that was future Jerica’s problem. She scrubbed her scalp and then awkwardly dipped beneath the surface of the water to rinse the soap and grime from her head.
She spluttered as she reemerged.
A cramp twisted throughout her entire abdomen, refusing to allow her to sit the rest of the way up. She put her hands on the edges of the tub to pull herself up to a sitting position, but she didn’t have the upper-body strength to manage it. Tears sprang to her eyes again. Stop it. She blinked them away. If this man happened to be real, he didn’t need to see her cry.
“Oop,” he said, hooking his hand under her right arm and pulling her up to a sitting position. A dagger appeared in her peripheral vision. Jerica tried to jerk away, but only managed to hit her head on the back of the tub. “Hey, easy now. The pointy-end is towards me, not you. Hear me out.”
Jerica swallowed hard as the man took a step forward so that she could actually see him. He sat down on the stool so that they were nearly on the same level. He held up a pair of trousers. “These are for you. If you want to cut your own off, you’re welcome to.”
Jerica hesitated, glancing down at her legs. He had a point. Her own trousers were clinging to her legs. She’d never manage to remove them with the state she was in, unless she cut them. And she couldn’t clean her legs unless she got the trousers off. And… if he was going to give her a replacement pair…
She took the dagger.
They locked eyes for a moment. She was stunned. Had he really just given her a weapon? Her fingers wrapped around the handle. If he was a hallucination, he wasn’t a very smart one. Could she stab him if she tried? It was worth a shot. Right now, he might or might not be an enemy – if he was dead, she knew he couldn’t hurt her. She could take his house until she recovered, then find her way back home, and not have to worry about him anymore.
“You’re too smart to even be considering that,” he said, standing and stepping away from the tub. “Is behaving really that difficult for you? You know fully well that’s not going to end well for you. Not in your current state. Remember the rock?”
Jerica eyed him for a moment longer, then slid her hand under the surface of the water and sliced through her trousers. They fell away. She set the dagger down on the stool and scrubbed the grime and blood away from the parts of her legs that she could reach. She swished her feet in the water, rubbing them against each other to clean them as best she could.
It was frustrating that he seemed to be entirely unconcerned about her. If she didn’t have her reputation to protect her then she had nothing at all. She wasn’t charming. She wasn’t pretty. She needed him to fear her, to be sure he didn’t hurt her.
She reached up to rub her face, and grimaced as she realized she hadn’t actually managed to get the sludge out of her hair. She’d worked some of it free, but now it was creeping down her neck. She lathered up her hair again, being careful to keep her thumb away from the soap, and scrubbed her scalp as hard as she could.
She pulled her hand away and wrinkled her nose. Her palm was covered in a black lather of the sludge mixed with soap. She ran the hand through her hair again and then looked down at it again, as if that time it was going to come away cleaner. She sighed. She just wanted it off her. She looked down at the water and realized it was so discolored she couldn’t see her legs anymore.
“Yeah, you sure got yourself good and coated in whatever that is supposed to be,” the man said, agreeing with her thoughts. “You’ll probably not get it all off in one bath. But at least you’ve got the worst of it off, right? One more rinse maybe?”
“Mm.” Jerica slid back under the surface of the water and rinsed her hair as best as she could. She took a deep breath as she emerged, cringing as pain stabbed through her ribcage. She put her right hand on the edge of the tub and tried to pull herself upright. It still didn’t work.
“Ready?” The man approached the tub with a towel.
She nodded once, tense. He wrapped an end of the towel around her upper arm and hauled her to her feet, then handed the towel over to her. She wrapped it around herself tightly. He lifted her out of the tub, then helped her over to the edge of the bed. She dried herself off then sat down, covering herself with the towel.
The man silently held undershorts out to her. She gritted her teeth and bent down to put them on. She was panting by the time she’d managed to squirm into them. Because apparently basic actions were strenuous now. The man held out an undershirt and then turned away as she dropped the towel and pulled it over her head, struggling to get her left shoulder to move so that she could get her arm through the opening.
“Lay back,” he instructed as he took the towel from her. Her eyes snapped towards his face and she glared. He snorted. “Why would I take all the effort to bring you inside and let you bathe if I wanted to hurt you the instant you lay down?”
“To make me lower my guard?” Her voice was still ragged.
“Bashing you over the head with the rock you tried to hit me with would have done that, and saved me a lot of time.” He raised his eyebrows, gesturing towards the mattress behind her. She sighed and leaned backward. He pulled some bandaged from a bag at his feet then turned his attention towards her leg. He whistled. “What’d you do to your poor knee?”
Jerica was silent for a moment. She didn’t know. She’d been wondering the same thing. It had to either have been when she was fighting the Chijurru or when he’d tossed her into the shield wall. She sighed, wishing she had a better answer. “I don’t remember.”