Yfrey had not had time to process the information that Wrance had given her. She had not stopped moving all night. She felt no remorse for what had happened to the guards. She felt nothing. Despite the years of hardship she had endured her survival instinct was still strong and it told her to keep going – to get as far away from the scene of the crime as possible. The blinding darkness and rain had made navigating the woods difficult, and now that the grey light of dawn was upon her and visibility had improved she could see a clearing ahead. It was inevitable that in order to move continuously one would come upon clearings and populated areas. The trick was, when these things happened, to blend in. Being drenched to the bone and stained with Wrance’s blood, Yfrey had little chance of blending into anything other than a warzone. She stopped uncertainly. A part of her wanted to double back, but she knew where she had come from and that way lay no good. At the edge of the clearing was a small cottage. There was a well to the left of it and a chopping block just outside the front door. A small, makeshift shelter a little way ahead seemed to house chickens, and a bedraggled looking cockerel sat atop it, clearly too depressed to crow. It was still early. If she moved quickly she could be on the other side and protected once more by the cover of the forest. She decided to hurry.
In her haste to be invisible once more Yfrey did not notice the low fence of barbed wire that framed the cottage and its surrounding area. The wire was not hidden, and was so low that it could easily be stepped over. It was most likely designed to serve as a deterrent to the chickens escaping, than any sort of defence against intruders. Yfrey, however, was utterly exhausted. She rarely slept and the perpetual battering of rain against her body was exhausting. Something had to give, and in this instance it was her footing. She flew head first over the wire and landed with an unceremonious thud in the mud of the clearing. The sudden noise of her expedient contact with the ground startled the chickens which began to squawk and cackle incessantly. She tried to get up quickly and keep moving but her ankle was still attached to the wire and bleeding profusely. She could not move. The mud was too slippery to right herself and every time she tried to twist her ankle free of the wire its grip became more determined.
The mixture of pain, blood loss and exhaustion started to make the world around her blur. The sound of the chickens dulled into the background until all she could hear was the wind. She was barely aware of the old man who emerged from the cottage, untangled her ankle and dragged her through the mud and inside. She was semi conscious as he undressed her, cleaned the mud from her body and wrapped her in clean clothes. She watched as he cleaned her wounded ankle, put some strange green inside the deep cuts and bandaged it tightly. She knew it was happening, but was unable to move or react. Had this man wanted to kill her he could have done so easily. When he had finished tending her injuries he ladled some odd looking broth from a cauldron over the fire and held it up to her lips.
“Drink this,” he said quietly. “It will help you to heal and sleep. You look like you haven’t slept in an eternity.”
Yfrey could not actually remember the last time she had slept. She was not in any physical condition to refuse the odd tasting broth. It had a woody, peppery taste, and coated her tongue and throat like thick mud. She barely managed two mouthfuls before passing out.
When she came to she was alone, in a warm bed, with a glass of water and a walking cane next to her. She looked around drowsily. There had obviously been some sort of sleeping drug in the broth. She had not slept properly for years. Constantly aware of the dangers that surrounded her, she was always prepared to run at the slightest sense of danger, and as such her sleeping had been shallow and hyper aware. She had not even noticed being moved to the bed. The luxury of waking up slowly in a warm bed was one that she had scarce been afforded. She tried to fight the drowsy feeling that now engulfed her. She had to keep moving. Her ankle could not take her weight and she fell back heavily onto the bed. She reached across to the walking cane and used it to support her movements. Cautiously she opened the bedroom door. Before her was a corridor. It led to a large window at one end, looking out onto the forest. There were three closed doors leading to she knew not where, and one open door at the very end. Her movement was impeded by the pain in her ankle and running was not an option. She had two choices. She could stay in the room and wait to see what was going to happen, or she could go through the end door and find out now. She had never been very good at waiting. She moved slowly and painstakingly towards the door, relying heavily on the cane.
The old man was stirring a pot over the stove. Upon hearing her enter, he stopped what he was doing and turned to face her.
“Well, hello there,” he spoke in a friendly tone to which Yfrey was unaccustomed. “You must have a strong constitution. The dose I gave you should have knocked you out for a week. It’s only been three days.”
“Three days?” Yfrey repeated slowly.
“Yes, it was a healing poultice. By the time you woke up you should have been fully healed. Never mind, take a seat, your ankle must hurt. I’m making chicken stew.”
Yfrey glanced out of the window at the chickens. Their numbers sadly depleted. She hated the custom of killing animals to eat them. It seemed so unnecessary when the Earth was so generous.
“You’re a healer?” she asked after a moment.
“Yes. And you’re a witch. No-one else could have fought off my poultice so quickly. Don’t worry, you’re safe here.”
He opened his shirt slightly to reveal the brand of the witch hunters: a huge cross burnt into his chest.
“Do you have powers?”
“No, but my method of healing, using herbs rather than surgery is too effective to be natural. No-one comes here, and I go no-where. You’re quite safe. Do you have powers?”
“I’m a harvester,” she lied. “But with all the rain it’s been difficult.”
“Maybe you can help my herb garden grow whilst you’re here.”
“I have to keep moving. The longer I stay here the more danger I put you in.”
“I told you, no-one comes here. You shouldn’t leave until you’re healed. You won’t be going anywhere very fast on that ankle. Besides, I’d enjoy the company.”
“Well... alright,” she said hesitantly. “I’m Yfrey.”
The old man smiled and handed her a bowl of stew.
They ate in companionable silence. In a world where neighbour turned on neighbour, one learnt quickly that the key to survival was not to ask too many questions. Yfrey had a price on her head because of her militant brother, and she suspected that Portan did not live alone in the middle of a forest through preference. When they had finished eating Portan stood up and took her bowl.
“If you can bring yourself to stay another three days,” he said, “the poultice I put on your wound will continue to heal you. You should be able to move normally.”
“I fear that I would put you in terrible danger by remaining in your home.” Yfrey began. In truth she could not think of anywhere she would rather be. She could not remember how long it had been since she had enjoyed the comfort of shelter and a bed to sleep in. She would never stay in one place too long.
“No-one comes here,” Portan assured her. “Since The Inquisition people would rather go to the bleeders, or just die quietly rather than risk being associated with someone like me. You’re quite safe here. No-one has visited me in years.”
“Alright then, but only until my foot is healed.”