In the Grove
The men lifted the litter and carried it carefully down the staircase from the tower. It was hard going, and Rhys saw that Kenrith was jolted more than once. But it was easier once they reached the flat. There were few people about - time seemed to have lost meaning, but from the state of the smoking torches, it was clear that the night was well advanced. What people there were gathered in huddles to watch as the sad procession passed them, moving onward through the darkened castle, and Rhys saw more than one person whose eyes shone bright with tears for the passing of their Lord's heir.
Rhys barely registered them, his attention almost completely consumed by Kenrith and the upcoming heartbreaking task of standing vigil while Kenrith's paralysis slowly overcame him. He pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders and marched on behind the litter.
Kenrith tried to speak, and only then realized how difficult it was. Slowly, he found himself able to form the words "Thank you... Rhys"
He looked up at the trees and recalled the tales of ages past, when Hardy lords had held their home against countless assaults and stood before the most fearsome odds in the field. Often, it had cost them their lives... but they had always held fast and held true to the ways of the north. He understood that he was bitter he was to die young, but tried to see his death in perspective. His was only a personal burdon, and he prayed to the old gods that if he was to die here that he would do so with strength. Still though, the anger was still there, if buried under blankets and stoicism.
And Rhys, standing beside him, felt s stange warmth even beneath the dark trees. A warmth deep inside him - which yet seemed to come from outside him.
Rhys froze in place, senses warily prickling as he felt the warmth's presence. What was this? Was he just tired? Was he hallucinating?
A warmth that was anger, perhaps bitterness ... A warmth that was being nourished and kept alive because ...
Because it was life.
If Rhys could feed that, if he could make it grow ...
But Kenrith shouldn't be lying passively. Kenrith had to fight his way through the fever ... and Rhys had to help him.
But how? Rhys laid a hand on the boy's chest, feeling his struggle to breathe. "Don't give up, Kenrith," he implored his friend. "I feel your warmth, your life...you need to fight. Hold fast, and don't give up!"
Kenrith's first reaction was the one Rhys desired, albeit perhaps without the focus he had intended. Rhys' hand on his chest was uncomfortable, and his words irritating. He was trying to breathe and maintain his stoic perspective on the situation and as good as Rhys' last-minute words were, Kenrith felt they were out of place.
"I'd say I don't intend to take this lying down, but I hardly have a choice, now, do I?" Kenrith growled as he willed himself to sit up one last time. While he was at it, he might as well try to brush aside Rhys' arm. He had no expectation of his arm moving, and the thought of dying as a motionless cripple made him angry. He was supposed to Hold Fast... but how was he supposed to do that if he couldn't stand?
Now that his focus had been shifted from the glorious days of old, the thoughts he was trying to fight off came rushing in. His father had left them... because his step-mother wished to leave. The same dreadful woman who had kept the fair from being closed, who had condemned perhaps dozens more to die by her shallow desire for spectacle.
And Rhys felt a flicker of movement, as the heat he was feeling increased. The faintest movement ... and then stronger as Kenrith seemed to be pushing his arm away.
"You moved your arm!" Rhys exclaimed, his eyes wide. "Try again!"
Kenrith was almost as amazed as Rhys. He closed his eyes, and would have ground his teeth if he had the strength, and tried with all his might to reach out towards the carved face at the center of the grove.
His hand moved - a definite movement.
And Rhys felt it ... as though he was making the effort himself. He was conscious that - despite the coldness of the night air, he was sweating with effort. Not fever though - this was something different - as though it was he who was making the effort to push forward - to move.
One arm was weak ... ignore that. Try the feet. The legs.
Hot, Rhys dropped the blanket from his shoulders. "Try your legs..." he told Kenrith, flipping the blanket covering them back so he could see if they moved.
Kenrith winced in pain as he struggled to rise, or at least move his feet. He spoke his thoughts aloud to Rhys. "The old gods are not kind Rhys... but they are just. And hard," he gasped as the efforts of trying to stand threatened to crush his lungs like a vice. Still, he did not relent. If he was to die this day, which he no longer took as a given by any means, it would be after such a struggle that none could say he and Rhys had taken what came like lambs before the butcher.
It was agonising ... for both of them. At first Rhys had to support Kenrith fully for his legs threatened to give way. Then, even as he found his balance, still swaying, it was almost impossible to move his legs.
But somehow he was aware of a presence in the trees - as though some Hodlfast ancestor was watching him, encouraging him.
Rhys, singularly focused on Kenrith, reached down and rubbed the boy's legs briskly, warming the muscles. "They need to move," he explained to Kenrith with an intensity Kenrith had not seen in him since the outbreak started. "I'll help you move them if you need me to. I'll move them if you can't. Move and you'll heal. I can feel it. Can you?"
"Just... be ready to catch me..." Kenrith said as he focused on every minutia of lifting one foot and placing it before the other. It was made easier, somehow, by the way each individual muscle had its own burning agony... but being able to feel his limbs was certainly an improvement. He ignored those who were nearby standing vigil and focused on his passionate desire to live... and to live strong. To hold fast before what the world would throw at him... and to take a step.
He did stumble, with that first step, but Rhys was there to catch him. He didn't let this stop him... as the sweat beaded on his brow and fell to the ground and the steam from his body created an almost-glowing aura around the two of them against the night's frost on the ground which glittered like silver under the moonlight. He moved his other leg now, in front of the first which had moved. It seemed as if he hadn't moved his legs for years, or that he was a babe again taking his first steps.
It was still hard, but it was getting easier. The muscles were screaming a protest, individually and collectively, but they were moving ... moving.
"I know this hurts. I know this is hard for you," Rhys said. "I can feel it." And he was indeed sweating, just like Kenrith, as if somehow attuned with the boy. "I'll catch you if you fall. Just keep trying."
And Kenrith did keep trying. He staggered until he fell, then worked to pick himself up with one arm and his legs even as Rhys helped him. He held out one hand, palm up, and touched his fingers to his palm one at a time... a process which must have taken ten minutes the first time. When he tried to lift his left arm, however, it was just as much a piece of dead wood as when he had come here. He quivered with frustration as he tried to move it, and staggered from left foot to right as he did so, but it would not move. Sometimes, as he tried, his right arm did move... because he was trying to move both arms together, aping picking up a barrel for instance.
Rhys lightly touched Kenrith's left arm. "That one's weak. It's not going to improve," he stated with utter conviction. "You're becoming exhausted. Don't waste energy on it."
It was clear that Kenrith had achieved all that his was likely to for this night. But touching his brow, Rhys realised that the fever had broken; it was would be a long, slow and exhausting convalesence, but the danger of death had been averted; Kenrith would survive. He would get better.
It was time to return to the castle, for Kenrith to sleep - a healthy, strenghthening sleep. After all, several hours had passed since they left the Castle, and dawn was brightening the sky.
Rhys saw Kenrith back to the litter and asked the men to return Kenrith to his bed. He followed behind, blanket forgotten in the weirwood, exhausted and yet exuberant. Kenrith would live! The miracle Sewell said must happen had happened!
Kenrith nodded numbly as Rhys explained he needed to return to the castle. He half-colapsed into the litter even with Rhys' help, and as he lay there his muscles twitched from their labors. By the time they returned to his room, he was fast asleep and remained that way for some time.