It was nearing early evening as they passed a battered sign that announced "Rollinsville, 1 mile." The bulk of the afternoon had passed quickly, and enjoyably enough. Helena's revelation that she preferred to live had driven her anger and despondency back into the darker alleys and hidden cesspools of her mind, and allowed her to enjoy herself. She and Yuvon had ridden along, chatting about minor things.
Helena was describing to him the governmental structure of the United States, as they passed the sign, and she reigned Nigel to a stop.
"Would you please hold up there for a moment, Yuvon?" She dismounted and untied her carpet bag from the saddle.
"What's up?" He wheeled Erishkigal about to face her.
"I am not riding into a new town dressed like this. It's bad enough that I have to be seen riding astride without all the rest." She indicated her attire.
"So what do you propose?" He pushed his hat back on his head, and leaned forward on his saddle horn.
"I propose to change my clothes."
He shrugged. "As you desire."
Helena made a rapid examination of their locale, looking for some screen to dress behind. The gulch through which they were riding wasn't very wide at this point, and what wasn't occupied by the road lay beneath a rapidly running stream. The hills rose in a steep gravel slope fully to ten feet on either side. Above that rise, the first available cover that might have been large enough was a line of poison sumac, thistle brush and scrubby looking trees. She felt a momentary doubt regarding the wisdom of her idea about changing her clothes. She shook her head and made a decision.
"All right, Yuvon. Turn around." Even if he had seen her unclothed, she still had her modesty.
"Zu befehl, Fraulein Doktor," he laughed, and kneed Erishkigal to turn about.
Helena rapidly stripped off her shirt and slipped a dress over her head. She considered completely changing her clothes, but rejected the thought. She didn't want Yuvon to think that she was any more ridiculous than she already seemed.
She tried to button up her dress, but soon discovered a new problem. It no longer fit correctly. She wrestled with it, held her breath and somehow got the garment buttoned.
"I suppose that you can turn around now."
He did so, took one look at her and smiled. "Putting on a little weight, aren't we?"
"Not in the least, thank you very much." She pulled her vanity bag from her luggage and went over to the stream to straighten up her appearance. "If you must know, this dress is designed for wear with a corset. Although a gentleman wouldn't understand such things."
"Of course they would. The outfit is designed for one configuration of your fatty deposits. Currently those deposits have lapsed into a somewhat different configuration."
"The prosecution rests. You are no gentleman." There was a splash in the water, and she caught a glimmer of a trout swimming in the stream below her.
They both laughed. She tried to do something about her hair, but gave up. It was going to take some time to deal with that rat's nest. She retied her luggage, remounted Nigel, and adjusted her skirts around her. After a moment, they continued on their way.
After a short distance, the gulch opened up into a much larger canyon. To their right, the stream they had been following flowed into a much larger creek that soon disappeared behind a bend downstream. To their left, the canyon widened into a small valley, divided into hay meadows and crop fields dappled by shadows of the line of clouds moving in. Directly across the valley, following the road up the hill a bit lay what had to be Rollinsville.
Although Rollinsville looked prosperous enough at first glance, and the stamp mill sounded as furiously as its brethren in Black Hawk, the frayed edges, the spots of peeling paint and the general aura of decrepitude told a sadder story. Here was a town in decline.
Helena and Yuvon rode across the sturdy wooden bridge, and followed the road to the left, across a smaller bridge over a stream, and then into town. Helena could smell the first hints of rain in the air.
Rollinsville lay, for the most part, on the mountain side of the road. Across the road, the land dropped to the gravelly bottom and the small river. As they neared the center of town, she could see that it was dominated by a large two storied building that sat long side to the street. A long second story balcony rested over what some might have called a veranda, but to Helena looked like a tired old porch. A large wooden sign reading "Rollins House" was affixed near the top of the building's square fronted facade.
Around the front of the hotel and the mining office next door loitered about half a dozen men. The scene gave Helena a strong feeling of having seen this all somewhere before.
She thought about it as she and Yuvon dismounted. She hitched Nigel to one of the posts in front of the building. The men reminded her of scenes she had seen back home in Georgia; men standing about the town square, just waiting, with no hope and nothing better to do. She stood watching them, until one of the men caught her eye, and she made a pretense of adjusting her saddle.
Looking around, Helena saw that Yuvon had already entered the building. She went in after him, entering the lobby. She quickly took in the room. It seemed nice enough to her, by rural standards. Hardwood floors, moderately high ceilings, the fireplace was huge and ugly, made of stones and masonry thrown together. What really caught her attention, though, was the antler decor. Everywhere she looked she could see hundreds of antlers and mounted deer heads sporting their racks full of pointed bone.
Yuvon was standing at the hotel's front desk, talking to the woman who stood behind it. She was tall, attractive and seemed good humored. She had strawberry blond hair, and a figure whose structure impressed even Helena. Helena walked toward the pair. Yuvon was talking.
"... And I said, 'No, here, take mine.'"
The woman looked slightly confused for a moment, then burst out laughing, accompanied by Yuvon's pleased smile. The laughter subsided as Helena approached the desk.
"Good evening, Ma'am. May I be of some help to you?" Even the woman's voice was pleasant. Helena didn't like her.
"I don't know, can you? I'm with him." Helena's reply seemed good natured enough to her, but she was pleased to see the other woman's face tighten almost imperceptibly.
"Oh really? Dr. Arelssyn, will this be one room or two?" The woman's tone was oh‑so‑pleasant, but Yuvon didn't seem to hear the subtle bite that Helena noticed.
"Well, unless my esteemed colleague has been recently possessed by a devil, it will be two." Yuvon smiled broadly.
"Very well, two it is." The woman mirrored Yuvon's smile. She turned the registration book toward Helena for her signature, then turned herself to select a pair of keys. "205 and 207, right next door to each other. Just up those stairs to the left. The restaurant's right in through there." She pointed at a pair of open doors to one side of the room. "If you need anything, just ask. My name's Inez."
"Lovely." Helena felt too tired to spend any more time chatting with this perky young thing. "A question then, Inez. Would it be possible for me to take a bath around here?"
"Well, since you ask, usually no, but seeing's how this is Saturday night, it shouldn't be any real trouble. The bathing room's 'round back next to the kitchen. If you hurry, you might even get in at the head of the line."
Yuvon gently placed his warm hand on her shoulder. "Listen, Helena. Why don't you come and get your bag? Then you go and ablute yourself while I take care of the horses."
"That sounds fine to me."
* * * * * *
Helena was indeed the first in line for the bath. She luxuriated in the fresh, hot water, in the tiny copper bucket that the hotel used as a tub, letting it soak into her tired, aching muscles. It always appalled her that people ever considered reusing bath water. Of course, she was the only person she knew who bathed even semi‑regularly, because it also appalled her to go more than a day or so without any sort of a bath.
She wondered, as she reached over to the pile of clothes next to the tub and began to roll a cigarette, if there wasn't some sort of problem revealing itself. But then again, it wasn't as if she couldn't stand to get dirty, she just felt better after a long soak. Perhaps it had something to do with all that time she spent dirty as a child.
All too quickly though, her time in the tub was over, and she was forced to relinquish the tub in favor of its next recipient. Helena returned to her room, and changed for the evening. It occurred to her as she slipped her dark blue skirt down about her that she was eventually going to have to wash the clothes that she had brought with her. She made a mental note to herself to discuss it with Yuvon, as she buttoned her shirt. He might have some ideas. She smiled as it occurred to her to keep quiet about it until she stank enough for him to bring it up.
She knocked on the door to his room. Getting no response, she went down the stairs to seek out her companion. He was, she saw as she descended the stairs, chatting up Inez.
"... And the Rabbi said, 'Let it drip dry.'"
"It's so nice to see people enjoying themselves together," Helena said, as she neared the laughing couple. "I really hate to interrupt, but I'm hungry enough to eat my own cooking."
"Of course, Helena." Yuvon flashed his enveloping smile at Helena. "Are you feeling better?"
"Yes, thank you." Helena strode towards the restaurant. She certainly didn't want that desk clerk around, reminding her of just how hideous she really looked.
Yuvon bade Inez 'Adieu' and caught up to Helena. They went into the restaurant together. The room was a continuation of what Helena considered the lobby's 'rustic baroque' decorating style. The room was nearly empty. They quickly found a table, and sat down. Helena was a bit put out when their menus were brought by Inez.
"Good evening, I will be your waitress this evening. If you need anything, you just call on me."
"Thank you, Inez." Yuvon said, smiling in some secret amusement. "I think some beer while we look at the menu."
Helena watched Inez as she walked away. There was no mistaking the message in those swaying hips. Helena looked back at Yuvon. He had noticed as well, and was watching with what looked like wry admiration.
"Do you find her attractive?" Helena asked Yuvon, while staring at her menu.
"That's an odd question." He looked back at Helena. "One that I wouldn't have expected from you."
"So it is an odd question. I'm just trying to make conversation."
"Well, since you ask, and in the interests of conversation; yes, I find her attractive."
"Because she's got a nice personality, she's a pleasure to look at, and she knows that she's a pleasure to look at."
"Do you really think that she appreciates being leered at by you?"
"I believe that the term you are seeking is 'objectified.' As in does she appreciate being objectified, or made into the object of my crude male lusts, and therefore no longer a person? Does she enjoy being a sex object?"
"I think that's somewhat crudely put, even if you are being sarcastic, but, yes, that's what I am asking. 'Objectified,' I like that."
"Thank you, but it's not my terminology. In answer to your question, it has been my experience that people tell you how they want to be treated by how they handle themselves. If you want people to respect you, you'll carry yourself with confidence. If you want to be harassed, you'll act like a victim. If you want people to admire your body, you'll act like that." He nodded at Inez.
"And how do I act?"
"I suspect that you aren't acting like your normal self because of your recent emotional strain, but lately you have been acting like someone who doesn't know what the hell she wants."
* * * * * *
After Yuvon put down his fork for the last time, he sat staring at his beer mug for a few moments, deep in thought. Helena shook a little salt into her beer to raise the head. Helena heard the rumble of thunder outside.
"I believe that I have an answer to your attire problem," he said finally.
"And that is ...?"
"Well it seems to me that you can't ride in those skirts, and you can't be seen in public without them, n'est pas?"
"I should say that you have a firm grasp of the obvious."
"What if we were to combine the two ideas?"
"You mean riding skirts? I'm afraid that I don't own any."
"Not to worry. Do you have a dress that you can do without?"
"I don't know. What do you have in mind?"
"If you can find one, I can alter it."
"You can?" She shook her head in irritation at her own stupidity. Of course he could. If he could mend a simple tear in her blouse, then radical garment alteration should be a breeze for him.
"I that case, there is that dress I purchased in Black Hawk yesterday. It's covered with blood stains now." She smiled at him in accusation. He ignored the jibe.
"That would be perfect. Why don't you fetch it while I go and collect my sewing kit. I'll meet you in the common room."
"The common room? What's that?"
"The room in there, with all the chairs."
Helena shook her head, and left the table. She went up towards her room.
* * * * * *
She returned downstairs a few moments later with the dress, and went into the front room, off the lobby. Yuvon was sitting in one of a pair of chairs next to a window. Helena walked over to him and handed him the dress. He examined it for a moment as she seated herself in the other chair. He took a pair of scissors from his kit, and began to disassemble the garment, tossing the bits of cloth on the floor next to his chair.
Helena watched him for a few minutes, then asked, "Where did you learn to sew?"
"I've always felt that a person should be able to do all number of things. I learned many years ago. Of course, my needle work is merely adequate, but there are others whose work is far superior."
"Oh? Like who?"
"Callista, for example. Her skills with a needle makes, made me look like the amateur that I am."
"Callista? Who's she?"
"My second wife." He paused to bite a string. "She's the one who made that night dress that you now have."
Helena was surprised by the term 'second.'
"And she died recently?" Helena was curious, she didn't want to upset him with any painful memories.
"No, that was Megan. Callista died a few years ago ‑‑ of a wasting disease."
"How horrible." Megan would obviously be at least his third wife then. Helena thought about it for a moment, while trying to be sympathetic, intrigued by this new information. She'd just learned more about him, than she had in the last few days.
"I suppose so." He looked thoughtful, obviously troubled. "She was incurable, but she took it well."
"You sound so, so clinical about it."
He smiled a bit. "I supposed I do. We had known that there was nothing that we could do for her for some time. She handled the whole thing with such a calm nobility that there seems no other way appropriate to feel about it."
"She sounds like quite a woman."
"Would you care to talk about it?"
"There's not much to say, really." He sat silent for a moment. "Callista Maria di Asturian y Villanuevo was a daughter of an old noble family. They had what amounted to a principality deep in the mountains. They were far enough off the beaten track that not many have ever heard of it. I only ran across them by the sheerest accident myself."
The name sounded Spanish to Helena, or Mexican at least. She wondered about the veracity of his story, but then shrugged it off. It seemed to her to be pointless for him to lie to her. But, she had to admit that the story seemed a little strange.
"They had been having some problems," he continued. "With a local bandit chief who called himself El Carnicero, 'the Butcher.' I offered my services to the Don. He wasn't very enthusiastic about my presence, but the situation had degenerated to the point that he didn't have much of a choice about my help."
"What services might those have been?"
"Oh, the usual. I'd go in, roust El Carnicero's troops, kill him, liberate the abused peasants." He started pinning sections of cloth together. "You see, El Carnicero had sealed off all routes of communication to the king, and so everyone was pretty much locked up in that little valley."
"And he rewarded you for these services by giving you his daughter? How regal. They're always doing that in the legends."
Yuvon laughed. "No, I'm afraid that Don Esteban would have slit his own throat rather than to have given his daughter to me. Not being in her class, and all that. Actually, I won her in a duel with El Carnicero. Unfortunately, due to the circumstances of her imprisonment, I had to marry her to allow her to keep her reputation. The Don felt, after some thought, I was preferable as a son‑ in‑law to El Carnicero."
"If I may ask, how did she feel about this?"
"Oh, I think she agreed. I definitely made a much better son-in-law than El Carnicero." He shrugged. "I know she wasn't happy about it at the time, and to be honest, I really hadn't been looking to be tied down with a new wife, but between us, we managed to work it out."
"How fortunate for you."
"I admit though that Don Esteban never really cared for me. You sound somewhat dubious."
"About what? That you married into an obscure noble family by luck? Why on earth would I doubt you?"
He shrugged, as if he didn't care whether she believed him or not.
"Regardless, that's what happened. In any case she was just what I needed at the time. Intelligent, independent and beautiful. She healed me when I needed it. I just regret that I couldn't do the same for her."
They sat for a while in silence. Henelan wanted to ask more, but she sensed that the door, inadvertently left open, had shut once more, leaving her outside. Helena wondered at all the time they spent, not speaking to each other. While she had spent many silent evenings with Ebin, in her life it had seemed more often than not that men talked to hear themselves speak. Yuvon, however, didn't seem to mind long hours of silence. There were times in fact that Helena felt like making noise just to hear something.
She stood up and began to slowly walk about. At this hour the hotel seemed sparsely populated, the dinner crowd, such as it was, having given way to a few diehard conversationalists. These had precipitated into four individual types of people. Besides Helena and Yuvon, there was a small band of card players engaged in a bloodthirsty, cutthroat game of cribbage. Elsewhere, a boisterous band of rustics, hunters and miners sat in a friendly crowd, trading lies and telling jokes; and finally a few tough 'shootist' types, all somehow managing to sit with their backs to the walls. Helena watched the groups as she pretended to examine the deer and elk heads mounted on the walls.
Helena noticed that there was a second group hovering around the reveling rustics. There were, in actuality, only a few true participants in the revelry. Around them were those who were laughing and joking, but never quite managing to get their stories heard, or if they did, their stories and jokes never getting more than an impatient chuckle from the crowd. Finally there were a larger number of what were effectively nonentities, as adult children, perpetually seen and not heard, forever an audience. Helena smiled as she realized that she was developing a hypothesis about that most abstract of entities, human social interaction. She decided to test her hypothesis.
Examining the table of cribbage players. It was easy to identify the primary players. Those trying to be involved versus those mere watching were a bit more difficult, but she was eventually able to distinguish between them.
Helena tried the other group, the gunslingers. There were only four of them, not including Yuvon. They were all sitting alone, sullen, and radiating an essence of threat and danger. Helena considered the criteria as explained to her by Doc Holliday, and compared these men to others of the type that she had seen before. The more she examined the four, the more they seemed to her to be the same man, somehow sitting at four places in the room at one time. They were all unshaven, dirty, as if just off of a long ride. Only by the details of their clothing could they be differentiated. They all drank whisky from a small glass before them. They each filled their glasses from the bottle on the table and drank, all with their left hands, their right hands hidden from sight beneath the table. They all had similar callouses on the edges of their visible hands from 'fanning' the hammers of their pistols. Last of all, they kept eyeing the room like cautious animals.
Helena looked at Yuvon, the fifth killer in the room, and she snickered softly. He looked so helpless and peaceful as compared with the rest of the 'wolf pack.' He was neat and clean, and looked quite domestic, sitting by a kerosene lamp, sewing. She wondered how he fit in with her theory.
She assumed that Holliday's 'killer elite' was the group she was calling 'primary.' That made sense, but Holliday had said that Yuvon was one of the 'elite.' So why then wasn't he acting like the others?
Helena was distracted from this revery by another woman in the room, nearing her. The other woman was dressed in a slatternly fashion. From her bright red hair, and overly made up face to her thin, threadbare 'finery' threatening to come apart at the seams and reveal all, the woman's aspect was that of a 'soiled dove;' a badly soiled dove. As the woman crossed the room, Helena noticed the four wolves were watching her progress hungrily.
The other woman came up to Helena. There was a large scar running beneath the thick layers of make up on the woman's face. Helena thought ironically that, all things considered, for such a nice doctor, she attracted all the wrong sorts of people.
"You there, are you the doctress?" Helena bristled at the woman's tone and terminology.
"I am a doctor, yes. What may I do for you?"
"Come with me." The woman turned and strode off. She paused at the exit when she realized that Helena hadn't followed her. She angrily flew back to where Helena still stood.
"Why aren't you coming? Didn't I make myself clear?"
"Yes. Perfectly clear. You want me to follow you. Unfortunately, I don't make it a habit to be blindly at the beck and call of just anyone. What do you want me for?"
"My friend. She needs someone to help her, unless that's not good enough for you."
"What seems to be her problem?"
"It's a little delicate to discuss out her in front of all these people." The prostitute looked around anxiously.
Helena nodded her head in acquiescence, and headed toward the door with the flame haired woman trailing behind her. At the door, Helena glanced over to Yuvon. He was eyeing his stitch work critically, and was paying no attention to her at all.
It was absolutely dark outside the building, the lights from the buildings failing to keep back the night. There was a definite chill in the breeze that had picked up since Helena's arrival in town. The smell of rain was strong, battling the aroma of wood smoke from the town's fireplaces. Lightning rippled across the tops of the mountains in snowflake blossoms of light that, for their instant, cut through the wet, heavy darkness. These were followed, after a heartbeat, by the sound of God's own cannon echoing away up and down the canyon.
Helena shivered slightly, as if with cold.
"So what's the problem?" she asked impatiently.
"My friend, she's having a baby, and it's not going right." The woman's tone was a blend of defensivness and concern.
Helena's blood froze, her heart slammed in her chest. Her voice shook slightly as she spoke. "All right then, let me get my bag. I'll be right back down."
She ran back into the building, and up the stairs. Just the thought of trying to cope with a problem childbirth brought all of her feelings of inadequacy to the fore. It was too soon after Mattie Gray. She wouldn't be able to survive if she killed another patient. As she collected her bag from her room, she wondered briefly, if it wouldn't be best if she were to ask Yuvon to come along.
She stopped herself. If she didn't even try, she knew that she could never face another patient by herself. She headed down the stairs, shaking with apprehension. She started to head into the front room where Yuvon sat, just to tell him where she was going.
But, she turned away from the doorway thinking that if she were to even speak to him, she mightn't be able to stop herself from begging him for his help.
Once outside, she looked at the prostitute, who was shivering with the chill in the air.
"Are you ready yet?" she asked Helena.
"As ready as I'll ever be, I suppose."
The two women walked off into the night.
As the passed up the street, Helena looked over at her guide, and asked, "How did you know that I was a doctor?"
"I used to live in Denver. I seen you around," was the woman's laconic reply.
"Yeah. I worked for Jennie Silks until I got this." She indicated her scar. "You coming or not?"
"Certainly, miss ‑‑?"
"You can call me Ginger."
"Yeah, 'cause of my hair."
""Very well, Ginger. I'm Helena McCoy."
"I don't care what your name is. Hurry up now, before it rains."
Helena shrugged. "Lead me on."
After a few, silent minutes, the women neared the smaller of the bridges Helena and Yuvon had crossed while entering town. There Ginger turned off from the road and up into the trees. Helena strained to see where Ginger had gone when a pathway was momentarily illuminated by a flash of lightning. A narrow path with trees to the left and a short, steep drop into the small stream on the right.
"Come on!" Ginger's disembodied voice came from the darkness ahead of Helena.
"I'm right behind you!" Helena shouted back as she puffed to climb the hill. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph," she muttered as the breeze made the trees creak loudly around her. First horses and now this. Her legs twinged with their fatigue.
"You just mind your step, and don't fall in! And hurry!" Ginger's voice came back on the breeze.
After an eternity, Helena saw a small light ahead of her, feeble piercing the darkness. As she got closer she saw that the light was from the sole window in a pathetic one room cabin, little better than a shanty. Ginger opened the door, and beckoned Helena to hurry.
Helena paused for only the merest fraction of a second as a blood chilling scream of agony came from the cabin. Helena sprinted toward the building, ignoring the uneven ground and her fatigue from climbing the hill. She shoved Ginger out of her way and entered the cabin. She stopped once inside, a block of ice forming in her gut, and dragging her innards down. She felt sick with fear.
On a filthy cot in a dark corner of the cabin lay a groaning and straining, bloated figure of a woman. Without a thought, Helena moved over to the bed, rolling up her sleeves.
Ginger followed her over, and knelt down at the bed side. "This here's the doctor, Emily. Now you just hold on."
"I need some hot water," Helena barked at Ginger. "Why did you have to leave her like this? Never mind, it was a stupid question."
Ginger hurried over to the fire place, and, using an iron rod, pulled a small cast iron cauldron from over the flames. It bubbled, as if alive. She carried it over to Helena.
"Just set it down over here." Helena waved indistinctly. She was trying to examine her patient. Ginger set the pot down next to the doctor. Helena pursed her lips. She might not be an expert on Pasteur's germ theory, but she knew enough about childbed fevers to suspect that this prospective mother was in a great deal of trouble.
"Don't worry honey ..." Helena's voice was more calm and relaxed than she felt.
"Her name's Emily, doctor." Ginger's voice was stony and full of anger. Helena looked up at her for a moment as she washed off her hands. Ginger handed over a towel.
"All right,then, Emily. Just try to be calm and do what I tell you." Helena glanced up at her patient's face. Emily's eyes were glazed and fixed; her breathing rapid and irregular. She made no indication that she had heard Helena, or for that matter, even knew that anyone was present through her pained shock. Helena whirled her head toward Ginger.
"How long has she been like this?" the doctor snarled. Ginger was visibly shocked by Helena's vehemence.
"I don't know what you mean." Ginger looked hard at Emily's face, then, "Oh my God."
"'Oh my God' is right." Helena said softly as she examined the birth canal. She had found the problem. The child had become entangled in the umbilical cord and was now firmly wedged in the opening, with one arm poking out. Blood trickled from around the body.
"She's been in labor most of the day." Ginger's voice sounded almost apologetic. "When it was obvious that I couldn't do anything, I went into town for help. I was goin' to fetch Inez until I saw you.
Helena's mind was frozen with images of Mattie Gray. She cried inwardly that it wasn't fair. She wondered if Yuvon could save this girl, but then Helena wasn't certain that her patient would survive long enough to go and fetch him. She would have to do this herself. There wasn't enough time. She had no other choice. The cold dread of failure tried to push her dinner up into her throat. She looked at the dying mother and tried to think of why she had even entered medicine in the first place.
"Can you save her doctor?" Ginger's voice seemed to quaver slightly. Helena glanced back up at her. Beneath the woman's hardened, scarred face, Helena saw a look of fear and concern for the woman on the bed.
"I'll do everything that I can."
* * * * * *
The rain was pouring solidly as Helena shut the cabin door behind her. It was a cold rain. She leaned back against the door, clutching her bag to her breast. She stood and let the frigid water run over her, hoping that it would wash the pain away. She had no idea of what time it was, just that it was dark and solid wet out. She desperately wanted a cigarette.
She ran the whole operation through her mind once more. The child had been dead long before Helena had arrived, strangled on its own cord. In many ways it was Mattie Grey all over again. There was a significant difference though. Emily would probably live, as long as she didn't hemorrhage.
Exhausted, Helena staggered back toward where she vaguely remembered the path to be. The sound of the rain swollen stream to her left was louder than the rain in the branches around her. She hadn't gone ten feet before she was soaked through.
The trail down the hill was slick with mud, and barely illuminated by the sporadic flashes of lightning. Helena carefully stepped down the trail. Every so often her foot would slip in the mud and she would slide and inch or so. She had lost track of the distance she had travelled when it occurred to her that walking back to her hotel might not have been the brightest thing that she had ever done. She stopped and took a deep breath. Heading back up the trail would be just as dangerous as continuing down. She continued her barely controlled glide down the trail.
She gradually became aware of a sensation that she wasn't alone. There was no tangible evidence, but she had a deep feeling that there was someone travelling with her in the darkness. A sense of terror carved its way through her fatigue and renewed depression.
Suddenly a flash of light revealed a huge man, maybe seven feet tall, standing in the trees to her right. Helena saw just out of the corner of her eye, before he vanished behind the curtain of darkness.
She whirled. Her heart slammed in her chest as she scrambled to reach into her medical bag. She might be frightened, but she refused to let some strange man to get the drop on her. She wrapped her hand around the pair of shears she had used to decapitate the snake, and held them ready.
She waited, frozen in the darkness, and in silence. Lightning flashed once more, and she got a better look at the figure before her. It was the gnarled shape of an old tree. Relief filtered through her, and she smiled. It was just her imagination. She released her grip on the shears and shut her bag.
Abruptly, the mud ledge she was standing on slumped under her weight, and she lost her balance. Her arms flailing, she toppled over backwards into the rapidly running stream. Her bag flew away from her into infinity.
The ice cold of the water tore her breath from her. She tried to inhale, but she stopped, twisting and gasping and spluttering as she tried not to drown. She flailed her arms around, grasping for some hand hold. Rocks and submerged branches slammed into her, tearing at her clothes and flesh. It was all happening so fast.
She slammed hard into a large object, her brain flashing black and bright for an instant. Straining to keep conscious, she grabbed at what ever it was that she had struck. It seemed to be some sort of stone pillar or something.
Her muscles screamed as she pulled herself up until her head was out of the water. She gasped painfully for air. It took nearly all the energy she could find within her just to keep a grip on the stone. After a few moments, she swallowed her fear and looked around her. Looking up, she could barely see that what she was clinging to was a support holding up the bridge.
"Help!" Her voice seemed so pitiful to her ears.
Looking around some more, she could see that she was only four feet from another post that was set into the bank. Normally, it would have been an easy reach for her, but here, with her cold, tired, and fighting the current, any sort of reach would be quite a trick.
She considered her options. She could try to get herself out of this, or she could scream for help, hoping that someone would hear her through all this rain, let alone the sound of the stream.
She rearranged herself for a firmer grip on the pillar. After taking a deep breath, she swung her legs over and made a grab at the other post. The current swept her legs away before she got even close.
"Damn," she muttered as she strained to keep her grip on the piller.
She hung there for a long moment. It was tempting to give into her growing fatigue, and to let the stream carry her where it would, but as the snake had proven to her earlier in the day, she preferred to live.
Taking a deep breath, she swung her legs as far upstream as she could. She grabbed the post as the stream carried her back downstream. She wriggled about, gripping the far post with her legs. She sneezed and spluttered as water rushed up her nose. When her legs were secure, she released her arms. She squoze her legs tighter as the current pulled at her.
Tensing her body, she reached up and grabbed at the rain and mud slicked pole. She wrapped her arms around it. Her grip slipped and she had to scramble to regain her grasp.
Inch by inch, she pulled herself into a better position. She reached out a shaking hand and dug her fingers into the mud of the bank. She found a small clump of vegetation. She grabbed it and held on.
She flung herself onto the slope, and quickly groped for more hand holds. She crawled slowly and painfully upwards. She knew that it couldn't be more five feet to safety. But it was five feet of strain and prayer. As she neared the top, she felt the mud begin to give way, and she slid backwards towards the water.
A hand grabbed her arm from above, and halted her slide. Helena quickly clambered out and dropped onto the grass by the side of the road.
"Thank you," she gasped, and looked up at the person who had helped her. It was a little girl. A dark haired, dark eyed little girl, holding a china doll clutched under her arm.
Helena started. "Who ...?"
The little girl turned and ran across the bridge toward the town. Helena groaned with fatigue and pain, and climbed to her feet. "No! Wait! I just wanted to thank you." She followed the child, running on legs leaden with the cold and exhaustion.
By the time Helena had reached the town, the child had disappeared. Pain seared through her legs and diaphragm. She looked around stooping and coughing. She closed her eyes in dizziness and nausea.
She gasped as hands suddenly grabbed at her shoulders. It was Yuvon.
"Did you see the girl?" she wheezed.
"Girl? No, I didn't. What happened to you?"
"Had an accident." It was too much for her. She was too tired, to confused to go on. Helena collapsed into his grasp. She felt him sweep her up into his arms. She knew that she was supposed to object to this, but she was too tired to remember why.
"I need to find the girl. To thank her."
"We shall find the girl in the morning. But first, you need some attention."
He carried her to the hotel and rapidly up the stairs to her room. Once inside, he set her on her feet and looked at her.
"You need to get out of those wet clothes." His voice was gentle but commanding. "Can you do that yourself, or do you want any help?"
"I can do it myself, thank you." She weakly waved him away. "Go away, please." She was overcome with dizziness, and pitched forward.
"Right." Yuvon caught her. Ignoring her protestations and weak attempts to get away, he peeled away her wet clothes. He finally removed her chemise and drawers, and set her on the bed. He stood back and looked at her. He whistled softly.
"So you had an accident, eh?" He ran his warm hand over her limbs and stomach. "Did this accident have anything to do with big men hitting you with clubs? And you are colder than a tax collector's heart."
"I fell in a creek." She tried to glare at him. He fetched a towel, and began to gently pat her dry. She was shivering.
"You are going to have to tell me all about it. In the morning."
The blood began to flow once more, bringing with it the feeling to her limbs. Helena drew her breath at the intensity of the pins and needles piercing her body.
When he finished, he retrieved her nightgown from her bag and slipped her into it. Shifting her about, he slid her under the covers on her bed. All the movement made her whimper at the back of her throat.
"Now, do you think that you can remain awake long enough for me get you something hot to drink?"
"I don't know. Why?" She actually doubted it.
"In that case, we will go to Plan B."
He smiled and stripped down to his trousers. Pulling back the covers, he slipped into bed next to her.
"Go away. I'm not interested," she yawned. She was reasonably certain that he wasn't treating her virtue, but even if he were, she was far too weary to resist. "I'm not that sort of woman."
"You are now. Come here." He slipped his arms around her and pulled her next to him. He was damp, but he was warm. Helena tried to slip away, but her fatigue and his warmth seduced her.
As she lay there, memories of the earlier evening came back to her. Emily's labor, the child's death, it all seemed so hopeless. Drained of all her energy, Helena was overcome by her emotions, and she began to cry, softly, and quietly. It dimly occured to her that this was the first real cry she could ever remember having, and wondered if she were doing badly.
Yuvon caressed her hair.
"That's all right. Let it out."
She cried more intensely, burying her face in his shoulder. Her sadness came bubbling up out of her; she recalled every patient she'd ever failed to save, every gray hair she'd ever found, all of her her lost and unattainable past, her unknown family, even the family she had known, but had never gotten close to. The realization boiled up with more tears that she had never told her Aunt Melissa how she had felt about her. She'd never told anyone how much she had loved Melissa and Ebin.
She reached out to Yuvon. She knew that normally, the thought of this degree of intimacy with another human would have both appalled and terrified her, she had never felt this close to another person before, and it felt so good to have someone there she could be open with. And, while she still had no idea why he was doing all of this for her, she was too tired, too unhappy to care.
As her crying eased, she noticed that Yuvon was singing, almost chanting a song she couldn't understand. The song had a gentle moaning quality that reminded her of the wind passing over the prairie. It haunted her.
She eventually fell asleep in his arms, feeling protected and warmed.