Having been unhappy with the usefulness of this chapter I have extensively reworked it. The extended ending is not ready yet, but the new start, which prepares the reader a little for chapter three, is now in place. Hopefully this will be of more help, as well as more enjoyable.
Freya blinked slowly and tried to dispel the stupor of bad sleep. Her body ached from the night’s chill, and although someone had thrown a blanket over her the gesture felt like someone hastily covering furniture. She lay still for a while, wondering where her father was.
Facing her from the next bed Ira lay tangled in a shroud of blankets, one side of his face staring out from the dark green fabric. Beyond him sat a nurse, mending some sheets and glancing over occasionally while she worked. It was a moment before Freya realised his eyes were fixed on hers, but she stared back undaunted, intrigued by his stillness. She wasn’t sure at first whether he could see her at all, or had slipped into some kind of trance, but when, after a few minutes, there was a murmur of voices and the click of a door behind her, his gaze shifted at once.
“He seems peaceful enough.” It was Dorian’s voice. “I don’t think there’s anything to worry about for the time being, as long as we watch him closely.”
The nurse at Ira’s bedside set down her sewing and bustled over to join what sounded like a small group.
“How is the poor man?” Freya heard her ask quietly.
A voice began to answer, but was hushed abruptly. There was a pause.
“Is the boy asleep?”
“They both are. Have been all night. I should think the boy will be for some time yet, after the tonic we gave him.” Several people sighed uneasily and Dorian spoke again. His voice was still more subdued and Freya struggled to catch his words.
“The father’s in a very bad way. Several times in the night we feared the worst but he’s made it this far. In the last hour we’ve seen a few faint movements and noises, but he is still delirious and losing blood. No matter what we do we can’t stop it. If anything happens I want you to move the boy out of here at once. We can’t have him in the way.”
Freya noticed that Ira’s face had receded still deeper into the bedding, but her concern was curtailed by hearing mention of herself.
“What of your daughter?” said a voice that Freya recognised as belonging to Dr Tattler, the Abbey physician. “She should be sent elsewhere if… I mean if…”
Mother Thornson’s stern rumble cut across him. “Spit it out man: if what?”
“It’s alright Mabel,” muttered Dorian, sounding as though his attention was on other things. “If the worst should happen then Freya should be dismissed. I do not want her to see what we’ve seen. I sent for her to keep the boy out from under our feet as she has a certain way with difficult cases. As a matter of fact, nurse, when she wakes would you would be so good as to send her down to breakfast immediately, and make sure she knows not to run off.”
“I doubt there’ll be much breakfast left by then,” said Dr Tattler wearily, sliding a chair back with a scrape. “They’ll be working all day to set up for the dinner this evening, I should think.”
“Well, one missed breakfast never hurt a young girl,” Mother Thornson announced stoutly.
Freya felt the weight of someone sitting on the edge of her bed, and Dorian said darkly, “We’re having those four from Eastmere this time: Villtr and his attendants. They haven’t been over in five years, but it still feels like yesterday.”
Dr Tattler gave an unenthusiastic grunt of agreement. “Who are the home guests this time? I hope you’ve picked good talkers, Father. With the eight of us – I assume Alder will be back from the Forest – and four of them, that leaves four more to make up the numbers.”
“Yes, it’s going to be Brother Hinterlis and Brother Oviss, Sister Ambrosa and Freya.” There was a murmur or surprise from the group. Freya bit her lip to suppress a gasp and then gave a few heavy breaths in case anyone suspected her of being awake.
“Freya’s growing up,” reasoned Dorian quietly. “I think it’s high time she sat at the table with us. She won’t be a novice forever, and I want Villtr to see that she’s up to the mark. Besides, it’ll be good practice for her.”
“Well I’m very surprised at you, Dorian,” cut in a sharp reedy voice that had previously been quiet. “I would say that Freya’s record of truancy, not to mention her insufferable insurbord-”
“Might I remind you that you’re talking about my daughter, Sister Tolla,” interjected Dorian coldly. “This evening will be important for her and I would appreciate your support.”
An uncomfortable silence followed, before being broken by the nurse’s voice. “What time will they be arriving?”
“Seven’s usual, I think,” put in the doctor from his seat.
Freya felt the mattress move as Dorian shifted his position before answering, “Yes, they should be here at seven. Alder’s men will be bringing them in. Dinner will be served at eight. I’m hoping to have an entirely unremarkable evening.”
He had scarcely finished speaking when there was a crash from the neighbouring room, accompanied by a strangled cry. Dorian leapt at once to his feet but Mother Thornson had already wrenched open the door and charged into the little side room. Freya, throwing caution to the winds, kicked off her blanket and scrambled upright, but she was nearly bowled over by Ira, who bounded past her and dashed towards the commotion.
Dorian moved quickly. Sidestepping, he blocked Ira’s path and pushed him back from the doorway, shouting to Dr Tattler, “Get them away from here now!”
The doctor and Sister Tolla seized Ira between them and dragged him forcibly away. The narrow arch of his back shone with sweat, his face twisted as he fought to break free and go to his father, but his strength failed rapidly. In a few moments he was gone and his cries were silenced, but no sooner had the door slammed shut in his wake, than a greater peril emerged.
From the side-room emanated a stream of curses and snarls, over which Mother Thornson could be heard bellowing, “Calm yourself, man, we mean you no harm!” Freya stood transfixed in the cool morning light, facing the plain white wall and its black rectangular cave of wonders.
Out of the darkness of the side-room lurched the spidery shape of Ira’s father. Dorian barked a warning, but Freya seemed suddenly unable to move. With a swift lunge he seized her by the scruff of the neck and pushed her away, in doing so placing himself before the oncoming patient. The man’s eyes were wide and haunted and in his hand he grasped a shining surgical knife, which he swung blindly.
Freya heard Dorian give a low grunt of pain. The nurse had witnessed the blade strike and rushed to his side while Mother Thornson reappeared from the side-room, looking shaken but otherwise unharmed. It was clear that no one wanted to get near to Ira’s father, especially not while he was armed, but in spite of her mental warnings, Freya felt a strange fascination drawing her closer.
Despite his injury Dorian pushed the nurse away, shouting, “Fiddlesticks, get me Fiddlesticks. And where are Alder’s men? They can’t all be in the forest!”
Freya paused in the middle of the floor, Mother Thornson’s heavy hand on her shoulder, but Ira’s father seemed oblivious to his would-be saviours. He reeled around the quiet infirmary, the knife darting here and there at invisible assailants, all the while muttering and gasping under his breath.
Without warning he turned straight towards Freya and uttered a long unsteady cry, before throwing down the knife with a clatter. Breaking into a shambling trot he made a dash for the infirmary door. Freya was pulled out of harm’s way for a second time by Mother Thornson, who dived to one side as he passed, his infirmary gown fluttering. She regained her balance and ducked out of Thornson’s grasp, and as Ira’s father vanished out of sight she gave chase, not knowing why but revelling in the uncertainty, uplifted by the fluttering of her heart.
Through echoing passages and up crooked stairs cut into the rock he ran, his bare feet slapping, narrow limbs trembling and drenched with sweat. Freya followed as fast as she could, hearing him murmuring in fear, and trying to think clearly where he could escape to. It occurred to her that he was probably the only family Ira had. For Ira’s sake, at least, she must try to save him.
Dorian, Mother Thornson and the nurse hurried on as fast as they could, but Ira’s father fled so fast that even Freya had to use all her agility and knowledge of the Abbey’s twists and turns to keep her quarry in sight. Gradually the sounds of pursuit behind her faded and she was left only with his pattering footsteps.
Now and again he stumbled as his knees buckled, only to scramble up and try desperately to make up the time he’d lost, before stumbling again. His hands bled from where he’d grasped the crystals of a quartz wall, and Freya was able to hang back slightly, following the trail of blood spots on the floor.
“At least I know where we’re going,” she thought hopefully to herself, “but he doesn’t. He probably won’t try to ambush me.” Even as she gave silent thanks for this advantage she wondered if it was any use at all trying to predict the actions of a mad man.
Seeing him round a corner ahead she slowed her step, knowing that he was facing a dead end. The last thing she wanted to do was run into the back of him, and the way behind was still quiet. Perhaps her father and the others had lost them? Caution and intrigue conflicted for only a moment before the latter rose victorious, and quietly she tiptoed on.
She wasn’t sure why she did; every fibre of logic was straining to hold her back, but Freya had never been a particularly logical child. An endless, almost catlike, capacity for curiosity was one of her defining qualities. And so she padded forwards, her round blue eyes wide in the gloom of the passage.
It was silent when she came out into the light of the chamber at the passage end. Her breath misted before her in little plumes and she halted. Before her stood tall windows, like those in the infirmary, but these led onto a narrow balcony that was little more than a ledge sticking out from the side of the Abbey rock. Beyond lay the greyness of the Vortine Sea, sullen beneath a pall of cloud. A door at the centre stood open, filling the chamber with the northern winter’s chill. Within the rectangle of light Freya recognised the immobile silhouette of Ira’s father. The only movement was the gentle swaying of his gown on the icy sea air. A few early snowflakes drifted in around the doorframe and she huddled deeper into her habit.