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Before I go to sleep

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Tarja was filling her basket with bread, cheese, fruit and meat for the week at the marketplace, when she saw the gates of the town open and a figure drag itself inside, before collapsing on the grass inside the walls. Several people, her among them, ran over to see who it was. She recognized Floor, a young woman who lived all alone in a house at the edge of the town, a little ways from all the others. 

Floor was something of an outsider, seldom talked to anyone, and always preferred to be left alone with her music and her hound and horse. She was a skilled hunter, the lodge she dwelled in was in the woods just outside the village where, every day, she sold the meat and pelt of a freshly-slain deer or whatever game she killed. 

But that day, she’d returned empty-handed, her musket still slung on her back with fresh, bloody wounds across her chest and scarlet stains soaking through her shirt.

She wasn’t one for corsetry and frilly things in lively colors. Breeches or trousers were her usual, worn with loose shirts in dark colors that would blend right into the bushes. The townsfolk had little interest in her: her tall, strong frame seemed to turn the men away and the women in delicate raiments scrunched their noses at her ill-suited wardrobe, but she paid none of them any heed.

But now that her blood was soiling their street, it seemed everyone of age had gathered around the woman - the children who tried to peer at the morbid spectacle were rushed home or had their eyes covered by their parents’ hands.

Her face was greenish and sickly-looking, and Tarja could tell just by looking at her that she needed her wounds looked after right away.

“It’s Floor,” someone said.

“What did this?” another voice asked.

“There’s no way she’ll live.”

The voices swirled around Tarja, blurring together as she laid a hand on the unconscious woman’s forehead to find it burning.

“Quickly, someone carry her to my house,” she said, trying to make her voice heard above all the murmurs. Two men lifted Floor and carried her through the streets of the town to Tarja’s house, before laying her on the berth in the back room, where she lay very still. Tarja thanked them for their help - they barely heard her as they hurried out of the hut with the hardly held in countenance of men fearing for their lives - and then went to work tearing open Floor’s ruined shirt so she could bind up her wounds. 

It looked as if a wolf had mauled her, angry claw marks tearing across her chest, from her left breast to the right side of her stomach. Tarja set about mopping the blood off the woman’s skin with a wet cloth first before she reached for one of her bottles on a shelf. Tied around its neck were a sprig of lavender and the dried leaf of a tea tree, and it was full of a light, clear oil she used to wash all the wounds with so they wouldn’t fester. In a mortar, she poured warm water and dry yarrow leaves and swiftly pestled the mixture into a thick paste. With it, she filled the deepest cuts before wrapping the lacerated limbs with bandages soaked in the same cataplasm.

The only ones left to cover were on her chest and belly. Slowly so as not to scrape against the ruined skin, Tarja pulled off what was left of her shirt, exposing the cuts, which looked even worse without the fabric half-covering them. 

She winced, applying the paste as gently as anyone ever could, thinking about how much they had to have hurt. As she did, her eyes were drawn for an instant to the woman’s full bosom slowly heaving with every difficult breath. Save for the marks thankfully shallow enough to be mere scratches and scrapes, it was a very fine sight. At least she imagined it would be to men…

With a light pinkness to her cheekbones, she went on with what she had to do and had done many times before; her hands were steady and in moments, every gash had been properly poulticed and covered. Tarja sighed and set the bottle back on its shelf and the mortar aside to be washed, before she stood up and brushed some dust off her dress at the knees. She glanced at the sleeping woman and laid a hand on her head. Her skin wasn’t as hot as it had been before, but it was still warm.

Rather than a cover that would rub against her fresh wounds and revive their searing sting, Tarja threw some logs into the nearby fireplace and watched the flame rise and swell with a lively crackle. It would keep the huntress warm enough in her sleep.

Hours later, Floor’s eyelids fluttered open. Her face felt warm, too warm, her chest hurt, and she hadn’t the slightest idea where she was.

Am I dead? she wondered, glancing around the small, shadowy room where she lay. Then she realized that if she were dead, there would be no searing pains where her cuts were and her m beside her, a concerned expression on the lovely, pale, definitely female, face. A blissfully cool hand was laid on her burning forehead, soothing her.

“Lie still.”

“Are…are you an angel?” Floor whispered, her voice somewhat raspy. The angel - she had to be one, albeit without wings - kindly smiled down on her.

“I’m only a woman. I’m taking care of you, Floor.” A part of Floor wondered how the woman knew her name, but she was too tired and sick to think about it much.

As the woman made to turn around and walk away, Floor weakly caught her wrist and, with a plea in her eyes, whispered,

“Don’t go.”

The woman smiled again and patted the back of her hand in reassurance.

“Rest some more, poor soul. I will be close by.”

Relieved and less than able to object, Floor nodded and drifted back into sleep in moments.

When Floor woke next, she felt much better. Her wounds didn’t hurt half as much as they had before, and her fever had gone down quite a bit. She sat up, careful not to put any strain on her still-healing stomach.

The room was empty, sunlight streaming in through an open window at the far end. Floor pushed the shutters of the window next to the bed open on a beautiful garden. 

The lady she’d woken to, the angel, was there with a basket beside her on the grass, filling it with the herbs she was picking. The angel had disappeared along with the haze fogging up Floor’s mind, and made way for a charming woman. Her back was turned to the window; all that could be seen of her was a loose mane of silky black hair, a gray cloak, and a pair of dainty and practiced hands. 

Rather than what she saw, it was the voice she heard that made Floor gaze at her in awe. The lady was singing in some language Floor couldn’t understand, but that didn’t matter. Her voice was beautiful. She sang on and Floor could only rest her chin on the sill, follow her delicate moves, and let the sounds ease what was left of the pain, little by little. 

She must have watched on for half an hour or close enough, until Tarja stood, picked her basket off the ground and turned around to make for the house. She noticed Floor looking out the window and smiled, hurrying to check on her sufferer.

She found her sitting up against the pillows and looking her way expectantly; Tarja took it to mean she felt much better and that she had a few questions to ask.

“How are you doing?” she asked, setting her basket on a table by the fireplace.

“Where am I?”

Tarja raised a disconcerted eyebrow.

“We’re…in my house, just outside the village. You are from the village, aren’t you?”

Floor nodded with a confused frown.

“I was laying snares near the edge of the woods. I didn’t see a wolf behind me, an old one, on its own. Packs don’t come so close. I can’t remember what happened after that.”

“You fainted a few steps into the village two days ago covered in blood. I had you brought here and… I did what I could. So, how do you feel?”

“Tired, and a little sore. Much better than when I was brought here, I suppose, but I’m famished.”

“That’s to be expected, you haven’t eaten in two days.” Tarja crossed to the fireplace and ladled some soup from a pot into a bowl. “Here. Eat this.” Floor reached for the spoon that Tarja held out, but found that she could not hold it, for her hands were bandaged. She stared at them for a minute, then looked at Tarja.

“What…?”

“You must have tried to fend the wolf off. Your hands were all cut up and bloody when you came back. I’ve put some salve on them, which should help. But you won’t be able to use them for a little while. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that.”

She dipped the spoon into the bowl and held it up. Floor couldn’t help but give the bowl a wary look, but all it seemed to hold was clear vegetable broth. Tarja put the enticingly fragrant spoonful to Floor’s lips.

“Try it,” she offered. “I promise it’s good.”

Floor sipped from the spoon, and her eyebrows rose at once.

“It is good.”

“Told you,” she answered with a cheeky smile. “I’ve been making it long enough to know.”

Eagerly, she accepted the next spoonful Tarja offered her. And the one after it, until the bowl was empty and a delighted smile stretched across Floor’s face. For the first time in months, she was well and truly sated.

“You have a lovely smile, you know.”

The smile left her lips all of a sudden and she frowned in confusion.

“What?”

“Your- your smile… it’s lovely.”

Confusion turned to astonishment.

“Well… you’re very nice to me. I haven’t been told anything like that in a very long time.”

Tarja drew a breath of relief and stood up to put away the bowl and spoon. Then she came back over to the bed and sat back down. Floor was watching her with blue eyes full of curiosity.

“I never asked what your name was,” she said.

“My name is Tarja.”

“That’s beautiful.”

That smile had appeared on Floor’s face again, much to Tarja’s joy. Now that she had seen Floor’s smile once, she wanted to see it again and again.

So are you, she thought about adding, but decided against it. She barely knew anything about her. Come to think of it, the huntress knew nothing about Tarja either.

“Why did you have me brought here?”

“This is what I do. Healing people. The townsfolk come to me whenever the physician can’t make them better.”

“But you aren’t from the village, are you?”

Tarja shook her head.

“I came here from up north a very long time ago.”

“Why?” Tarja’s expression grew sad.

“I…couldn’t stay there anymore.”

“I’m sorry.”

It was clear the matter was too close to Tarja’s heart and Floor had no business being there. She backed off.

“How come we’ve never met at the village before?”

“I’m only ever there to buy what I need or if I’m summoned to heal anyone who’s bedridden. No one sees much of me over at the village, and most of them like it better that way. So do I.”

“Why?” Floor asked, her brow creasing in a frown. “You’re a marvel, Tarja. I can’t believe you took care of me the way you did.”

“I heal them, but they can’t always understand how I do. They find their own explanations and those usually…” Tarja let out a sigh and studied her hands.

“Aren’t the most flattering?” Floor offered.

Tarja nodded.

“Anyway, I’d rather stay on my own. It’s quiet here, plenty of room to plant my trees and my bushes. No one to call me a witch…”

Floor scowled at that.

“They do that?”

“Some of them. Those who don’t, believe them.”

“A witch? You took care of me, you helped me live when they wouldn’t. Whether or not what you did was witchcraft, I’m grateful for it.”

Tarja smiled.

“So, do you have anywhere to go?”

“I live a mile into the forest, my lodge is there.”

“That will never do. You can’t stay on your own at least until you’ve healed.”

“Well, where am I supposed to stay?” Floor arched an eyebrow.

“Here, of course. Where else?”

“Here with you? I could never- I’ve been here quite long enough, I think.”

“Nonsense! I don’t mind your staying here in the slightest. If anything, you’re very pleasant company.”

“But, Tarja-”

“No buts,” Tarja interrupted in a decisive tone. “I know what’s best for you.”

The very fact Floor was alive seemed to give her host reason. She gave a sigh and surrendered.

“Good then. Here is where you’ll be until I say you’re fit to hunt again.”

That night, Tarja slept on the ground beside the bed, ready to get up if Floor needed anything. She wrapped herself in a blanket, placed a pillow under her head, and went to sleep. 

But she was roused in the night by the sounds Floor made on the bed beside her as she tossed and turned, a pained expression on her face. Tarja reached out and brushed some hair away from her forehead, stroking her cheek to calm her down. It seemed to help, by the way Floor’s tense muscles and worried expression relaxed. 

Tarja watched her for a minute, making sure she’d quieted down, then lay down to go back to sleep. But a moment later, she felt something brush her arm, and opened her eyes to find a hand reaching out for hers. Touched by the gesture of distress and trust, she took it gently, minding the cuts, before shutting her eyes to sleep for good.