Sacred Duty, Bleeding Heart

Chapter 3

After adjusting her shawl, Katla went back inside and had a thoughtful look around her small and spotlessly tidy kitchen and the freshly scrubbed pots and pans hanging under the ceiling.

Yesterday had been day like any other, ever since Wiltburn had been destroyed. And then a group of dwarves had tumbled into her life and her house, had dropped a badly wounded man into her care, eaten three days’ worth of bread and eggs and vanished again, all in one day and one night.

With a deep sigh and a shake of her head, she picked up her bedding and carried it over into the other room where she dropped it in front of the hearth, to be closer to her patient while catching up on some much needed sleep.

She slept a few hours before she awoke again and immediately checked on Fili.

His head had dropped to one side; his skin was pale but with an unhealthy blush on his face. Katla placed the back of her hand against his cheek and his neck; he wasn’t very warm yet, but she nonetheless prepared another herbal brew to be ready to battle the fever should it rise.

And the fever came, just as the sun was beginning to set. It came with vehemence; within an hour he was shaking and sweating, his head tossing to and fro while he muttered words Katla could not understand.
She sat by his side for the rest of the night, cooling his face with a moist cloth and dribbling the herbal brew behind his lips with a spoon.

At one point he opened his eyes and stared right at her, but his eyes were empty and unseeing, clouded by fever and pain. His head fell back with a hoarse, drawn-out moan of pain coming from his cracked and dried lips. Yet he almost chocked on the few drops of liquid when she tried to give him some more medicine. So she sat with him through the night, cooling his face and holding his hand, until shortly after sunrise the fever broke, vanishing as fast as it had come.

It was around noon when he opened his eyes again and asked for water in a hoarse voice. Holding his head, Katla helped him drink the brew she had prepared to ease his pain before giving him some water.
He did not open his eyes again, but she could see when the herbs began to do their work. The deep lines between his eyebrows began to disappear as he fell asleep again; not into the nightmare-ridden unconsciousness of fever and pain but the deep, heavy sleep of healing.

Her shoulders drooping with tiredness Katla now left her vigil to tend to her animals and after that, to the needs of her own body. She was hungry and needed to make more bread, she would have to settle for groat until the new loaf was ready.

As she ate she started a broth from some smoked bones and herbs, and while she waited for the kettle to come to the boil she went outside again to take care of all the bloodied laundry. The sun was almost setting again when she was done and her hands were red and stiff from the cold. Shivering, she wolfed down another bowl of groat before straining a ladle full of broth into a bowl into which she beat an egg yolk. With that she went back to her patient who was still asleep, albeit less restful than when she had last checked on him.

Katla sat down beside the cot and waited for him to wake up. When he opened his eyes again shortly after, they were clear of fever, but he seemed to have trouble focussing as he looked around.

“Where am I?” His voice was still cracked and hoarse. “What... happened? Where am I?”
“You are in my house,” Katla replied. “You were brought here by your friends, you have been badly injured.”
“Injured?” He tried to sit up, and with a grimace of pain, immediately fell back.

“Lie still.” Katla patted his hand. “You fell and broke a few bones, and injured your head. You also lost a lot of blood, so you will need a few days of rest.”
“But...” Fili blinked a few times, his eyes swivelling through the room until they finally found her face. “Who... who are you?”
“My name is Katla. I am a herb woman. I took care of you during the last two days that you were unconscious.”
“Katla.” He furrowed his brow, then his eyes widened. “I...” He swallowed, and his face went even paler than before.
Katla leaned forward and took his hand. “Your name is Fili, your friends told me. You will remember again. Injuries like yours take some people that way.”

Fili closed his eyes again, his jaw set tight. “How long?”
“I don’t know.”
He sighed. “It feels...feels terrible not knowing who and what I am... Who... who where those friends you told me about? The ones who brought me here? Where are they?”
“I have only a few names. They were dwarves like you, but they already left, they seemed to have very urgent business to attend to.”

After a long moment, Fili opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling for a while. “One of them... was he a young dwarf? With dark, long hair?”

“Yes.” Katla tilted her head. “If we think of the same one, then he would be your brother Kili.”

“Ah.” His frown deepened. “Brother...” Then he looked at Katla. “I think I dreamt of him, you know. But it was all very... strange.”
“It would have been,” Katla replied. “You had a fever last night.”

After another long pause Fili asked her for water again, and after helping him drink, she also fed him some of the broth she had prepared. While he was visibly uncomfortable with being fed like a child, he still thanked her afterwards.
When their eyes met, a small and tired, yet true and gentle smile tugged at Fili’s lips. Katla returned the smile before hastily turning away with a blush creeping onto her cheeks, and the smile stayed on Fili’s lips as his eyes followed her out of the room. It stayed there until he had fallen asleep again.

Katla spent some time mending his shirt before going to bed that day, crawling into her nest of blankets between Fili’s cot and the hearth. She watched him sleep for a while, and listening to his deep and even breathing, she fell asleep herself.

Fili was not yet able to sit up the next day nor the day after. The day after that, however, Katla found him sitting up when she came back inside after having tended to her animals. That took her by surprise as she had not expected him to be able to sit up by himself for at least week longer.

“How do you feel?” She hastily put down the bucket of milk and hurried over to his cot. “Are you dizzy? Does your head hurt?”
Fili pointed at his bandage and the wound over his left eye. “It hurts here. And it itches. But no, I am not dizzy.”
Katla frowned. “You should be.”
One corner of Fili’s mouth twitched as he lifted his eyebrows.

“Well.” Katla brushed a strand of hair from her face, her cheeks reddening. “It seems dwarves heal faster than humans do. And don’t take as much damage to their bones.”
It was Fili’s turn to frown now. “But you’re a dwarf yourself?”
Katla avoided his eyes and looked past him. “I am... I am only a half-breed. I am a foundling; I grew up amongst humans and have never met dwarves before.”
“Oh.” Fili looked down at his hands. “I didn’t mean to...” He broke off and gave her a somewhat shy look.
Katla adjusted her shawl. “You had no way of knowing. One of your companions even greeted me in your language which... I guess it means I look more a dwarf than human.”

“You don’t look human to me at all,” Fili gave back after a moment. “Although I’m not sure how I can be so sure of this.” He gave her a crooked smile.
“It certainly explains why I never had a chance of belonging here,” Katla said softly, almost as if to herself.
Fili cocked his head with a frown. “You sound bitter.”
“It’s nothing.” Katla got up and put another piece of wood into the fire.
“I’m sorry.” Fili sighed. “But look... I mean, I’m tied to my bed here what with all my broken bones, and I need something to do or I’ll go mad with boredom. And since I can’t be the one talking since I couldn’t even remember my own name, I’ll do the listening, if you like.”

Her back was still to him, and she was staring into the fire. “It just...” She sighed. “It’s hard, not belonging.” She turned around but looked past him. “I mean, I never fitted in anyway because of being so short, but they never let a chance pass by to remind me of the fact.”
“The others in the village.”
“What village? Is it nearby?”
“It was nearby. It was razed by orcs two years ago. They killed everyone.”
“And you have been living here alone all this time?” Fili leaned a little forward. “Why? Why didn’t you leave?”

Finally, Katla met his eyes. “And where should I go? There is nothing for miles and miles. There is a city on the lake to the north-east, but it is a city of humans... and I am not sure I would even reach it. Orcs and goblins have haunted these hills ever since they destroyed the village.” She crossed her arms tightly. “At least my goats and chickens don’t mock me.”

“You sure did not have an easy life,” Fili said after a while. “But... if I may ask... how is it that you are a herb woman if no one...” He broke off, lips pressed together.
This time, Katla gave him a tiny smile. “It was the herb woman who took me in and raised me. She also taught me everything I know. She was kind, for a stepmother who only took the little foundling in because no one else wanted her.”

The fire crackled in the hearth, a few drops of pine resin popping in the flames.

“I could maybe take you with me,” Fili said after a while. “Once I remember where my home is, of course,” he then added with a wry smile.
“Thank you,” Katla whispered softly. “Do you think your people would accept me more easily?”
“You look like one of us,” he gave back. “And if anyone dares to taunt or mock you he’ll have to answer to me!”
They shared a smile before Fili cleared his throat.

“I guess that would have been more believable if I would not be a helpless invalid right now.”
They shared another look and chuckled.
“Probably,” Katla replied. “Thank you, nonetheless.”

“That only begs the question; what am I going to do now if you can’t keep my mind occupied with talking about you,” Fili said, a lopsided smile on his face. “I would talk to you about my mighty deeds, if only I could remember them.”
Katla chuckled again. “Make them up.”

Fili grinned at her and then looked at his left arm again and tried to flex his fingers. “How long until these can come off?”
“I was thinking about three to four weeks, but since I had not expected you to be able to sit up already...” Katla shrugged. “It may be sooner.”
“Can you check?”

Fili let himself fall back into his cot with a grunt of disappointment and lifted one eyebrow when Katla chuckled.

“Be worried when they moan and toss, my stepmother said. Be wary when they’re still. But when they grumble and complain, they’re on the mend for sure.”
Fili couldn’t help but chuckle with her. “I guess that means I’m out of bed sooner than you thought.”
“And surely not as soon as you would wish.”

They shared a laugh, yet when their eyes met and Fili gave her a playful wink Katla fell silent and turned away with burning cheeks. The silence that followed was a little uncomfortable.

“I... uh... did I do something wrong?”
Katla swallowed and shook her head before giving him a shy and hesitant smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “I’m just not used to... I mean, I have been living alone for so long now...”
Fili slowly sat up again and tilted his head. “It must have been hard for you to lose them all when the village... was destroyed,” he said.

Katla looked past him, deep lines around her mouth. “Hard, yes. But... well, they accepted me as Leonore’s apprentice and paid me for my services, but they never stopped their children from calling me ugly imp and flinging mud at me.” She looked at her hands. “They were not evil people. I just... I just had no real place among them.”

“I am sure you could have one with my people,” Fili said after a moment in a low voice.
“I would like to believe that,” Katla gave back with a shrug. “Yet I am not sure I have the courage to find out.”
“But you can’t stay out here all alone for the rest of your life...” Fili frowned and shook his head.
“I already told you there is nowhere to go.” Katla got up from her stool and pulled the shawl closer around her shoulders. “Not everyone gets thrown a good lot of fortune in their lives.” With that, she left the room, leaving Fili to stare at the door with an unhappy frown, his hands curled into fists.

They only exchanged very few awkward and uncomfortable words for the rest of the day and, by nightfall; Katla had removed her bedding from the floor to sleep in her own bed again.
She came back with her sewing however; to make use of the light of the large fireplace as the kitchen stove gave warmth but no light. Yet she just settled down by the hearth on her stool without looking at Fili.

Thus two days went past where they hardly looked at one another, not even when she examined his fractures and declared them sufficiently healed that he at least could venture out to the privy on his own, if nowhere else.

She came back with her sewing that evening and after watching her work on his shirt for a while, Fili took a deep breath and bit his lower lip before he finally spoke

“I’m sorry I opened an old wound.”
Her mending sank into her lap, but she did not move otherwise.
“Look, I really am sorry. I mean, here I am, after you saved my life and patched me up and nursed me back to health, and all I do is blather without thinking. I... I would ask your forgiveness.”

She finally looked up. “What is there to forgive? You just spoke the plain truth, a truth that I am well aware of even if I try to ignore it. No, you are right; I cannot stay out here alone much longer. I can barely keep myself alive alone out here, and with no one to help me or mend my tools or repair anything out here I will not make it longer than another two winters.” She swallowed. “I just should accept your offer and stop looking back...”

“But I’m a stranger,” Fili said after a moment. “You have no way of knowing if you can trust my words.”
At that, she met his eyes at last. “Yes,” she said simply.
Their eyes were locked, and for a while, they just stayed that way.
It was Katla who finally broke the moment by letting her eyes drop onto the needlework in her lap. She tied a knot, bit off the last thread and got up, wordlessly handing him the newly mended shirt.

“Thank you,” Fili said as he took it.

Katla turned away from him and stared into the fire as he pulled the shirt over his head and was so lost in the flickering flames and the images one could almost see in there that she flinched when Fili put a gentle hand onto her shoulder.

Fili gave her a gentle, reassuring smile when she shyly looked up at him.
“I understand,” he said, his voice low. “But you saved my life, you brought me back to health and even if I might not have died without your aid, I might be crippled now without you having set these broken bones of mine.” He took a small step towards her. “I would trust you with my life, and everything else I have.”
She still wordlessly stared at him, her eyes slowly widening as Fili moved his hand up to rest it on her cheek.

Just as he leaned his head forward, however, Katla seemed to awake from her trance and lifted her hand, resting a finger on his lips just before they would have touched hers. Fili hastily dropped his hand and took a step back.

“I’m... I’m sorry... I did it again now...”
Katla shook her head, her voice was gentle. “I just... I fear that...” She took a deep breath. “You might... you might have a woman at home, you might even be married.” Looking away she closed her eyes. “I would not want to turn you into an oath breaker, even unknowingly.”
Then she turned around and all but fled the room.

Fili stared at the door for a while and, with a heavy sigh, he crossed his arms and stared into the hearth, watching the flames with a deep frown. He had no idea what had come over him to assault her like this, as if he was no more than a drunken rapscallion grabbing at every woman available, and he was ashamed of his actions. Yes, she was beautiful, but that didn’t give him any excuse for his behaviour towards her.

He kept staring as the fire slowly burned down into embers and the room around him grew dark, the shadows deepening and enveloping him like a shroud. In the weak, reddish glow of the last dying embers he finally lowered himself down onto his cot, but he did not sleep for a very long time.

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