"And your age?"
Hestia shook her head.
"Hmm," Morgana moved the quill, writing some more, "alright. So no origin and identity. How about a friend or a relative?"
"I don't remember that either..."
"Nothing at all?"
"Well, there are...there are bits and pieces that I keep seeing over and over. Like—like it's stuck there inside my head...?"
She glanced at the small book on Morgana's lap. The binding, a slender strap, hung loosely in the air. Scratches and abrasions could be seen on the leather cover. The worn-off, rather discolored appearance made the book look antiquated. It's the same book Morgana had been holding the first time she saw her at the door.
"Can you explain the vision then?"
"The things I saw?"
"I'm not sure..." Hestia looked at the ceiling, exhaling. The pillows eased her throbbing head a little bit, "I don't know what to make of it."
"Just say anything. Details matter if you want to retrace your memories."
"I keep seeing places that I don't know of. Woods, encampments, houses, buildings. Everything is so..." she closed her eyes, "...random."
The scribbling sounds ensued.
"Then I saw people. They're all angry...at me I suppose...? I'm not sure. They looked hostile."
"They threw stuff at me. I think...I think they wanted to hurt me..."
"Now that makes sense."
"Your clothes," Morgana closed the book, putting her pen aside, "there's a large blood stain on the back of your clothes. I thought it's not yours."
"I haven't looked into it yet so I can't say anything," Morgana got up from her seat and headed for the door, "wait just a moment."
Hestia sat back up, rubbing her forehead. The aching had gone though she couldn't help but think back to that particular night. Blood, Morgana said. She remembered something hit her on the back before passing out. Her hand instinctively touched her backside.
No pain. No gash. No wound. At least none she felt so.
Nothing remarkable except for the fabric of her tattered attire, torn here and there, exposing some of her skin. Skin that's coarse and covered with filth as if never met any drop of water. She traced her hair—long hair against her fingers, falling down to her waist. She took a handful and looked at it closely.
Black hair. Black like an ink. Dry and grimy, she could feel dirt tangled in between.
How long I've been like this already?
She gazed around, feeling so out of place. Her ragged and foul state was the opposite of Morgana's bedchamber—clean and no reek of death. It wasn't spacious. Nothing really attracted her attention except for the number of books in the room. Three large shelves were placed side by side, almost covering the entire wall itself. In the front, stood an armchair and a scribe desk over a circular rug where Morgana possibly spent time reading her tomes.
The chair made her wonder where the woman slept for the last two days.
"You're up again. Are you feeling better?"
"Ah," Morgana had returned unannounced, or perhaps she just spaced out way too long earlier, not paying attention "yeah, I think so. My head doesn't really hurt anymore..."
The woman had a satchel in her right hand and a wooden box with a handle in another. She put them on the table and started unpacking its contents. Hestia could only blink in confusion looking at the items she'd never seen before.
"Alright, can you remove your clothes?" Morgana said while attaching a monocle-like device on her ear.
"I need to perform an examination," she walked closer, the wooden-metallic instrument covered her entire right eye "I didn't wanna do it until you woke up."
"Uh, why not?"
"Would you let a stranger graze their hands upon your body when you're unconscious?"
Hestia's brows furrowed, "Huh, no! No—not when you put it that way..."
Morgana gave a roguish smile.
"I was messing with you. It's my personal code of conduct. I wouldn't take any action if no consent was given."
"But...you fixed my leg when I was asleep...?"
"You were bleeding," Morgana said again, "of course I'd take any necessary means if it's an emergency."
"I see...I understand..."
"Very well, shall we begin?"
Hestia was silent for a moment before finally loosening the girdle around her waist. One by one she discarded them on the floor. The outer tabard, the tunic, and lastly, she pulled the final article over her head—the linen undershirt. Her arms folded by reflex, covering her bare breasts with both hands.
"Take everything off, please."
"The—the trousers too?"
"I wouldn't be able to look at anything with that on."
Carefully, she slid off the brown pants. The injury on her knee made it a little difficult. However, Morgana stopped her right away as she's about to reach the hem of her breechcloth.
"That can stay," the woman said, suppressing her laughter "I don't need to see everything."
Blushing, Hestia averted her eyes and adjusted herself on the sheets. The weight of the bed shifted as Morgana sat behind her.
"Wh—what?" Hestia turned to find the woman, hand on her mouth, stared at her back with her brows furrowed.
"That's a lot of wounds," Morgana said again, her eyes went up and down, "large and deep ones. Don't move, let me have a look."
"Wounds...?" she whispered to herself. Her attention caught on the pile of garments on the floor. The white, beige, grayish—she wasn't sure what to make of the color anymore. Dirt and whatever was that made them look like a bunch of rags rather than clothes. She noticed the dark stains on the fabric.
"Does it hurt," Morgana applied pressure on her back, "when I touch it like this?"
"You truly don't feel any pain?"
"How about this?" her nails scraped gently on the surface.
Again Hestia shook her head.
"Alright. Now, up. Straighten your back."
"Good. Stay still."
For an unknown reason, Hestia felt heat crept up her face. Morgana's slim fingers traced lines all over her skin. From her nape, upper arms, shoulders, to her spine, down to her scapulas and underneath. Every touch left the hair on her body rose, like a trail of breadcrumbs.
"Why are you so tensed? Relax a little."
"I, um...it's chilly..."
"Hold on a little more, okay?"
There was nothing she could do other than brushing off the growing sensation in her stomach. It was oddly familiar. Not that she hated it, the feeling was just different. Tingling, like an itch that needed to be scratched. She looked around, trying to find a distraction. Suddenly, she remembered something.
"You don't seem to be surprised."
"When you know I lost my memories..."
"Should I be?"
"Is it—is it common?"
"The memory loss? No, but it's been known to happen."
"So, you know how to cure it?"
"Can't say anything yet," Morgana gave a massage-like stroke around her waist, "but the most common cause is blunt objects to the head—which I figured you had."
She jolted a little when the woman suddenly got up and sat before her.
"Alright, now I need to look at your front."
"Uh," Hestia swallowed, looking away. She pressed her arms closer to her chest, "do I need to—um..."
"No need to be embarrassed. It's not like I haven't seen naked women before—or men even."
"...okay then," Hestia gave in, looking at the walls as she released her arms. She didn't even look at her. But she knew Morgana's eyes were all over her face, neck, breasts, abdomen, and beyond. Everything. Every inch of her skin. Every part of her body. She knew this was necessary. She knew this was professional. Nothing less, nothing more. But why did she feel so uneasy yet at the same time...excited. That, she couldn't fathom. Perhaps because Morgana was the first and only person whom she had contact with. The fact that they just met made things didn't feel any easier.
"You found something?"
No answer. Morgana took off the device and put it aside. Hestia saw those green eyes stared straight at her torso.
"The thing you wore on your eye...what's that?" she asked again, attempting to draw away her own awkwardness. Hestia tried to look at anything but the woman. The chair, the bookshelves, the apparatus on the table—anything to keep her calm.
"Oculette. For seeing the tissue of the skin. The Guild invented it to aid us in examination and surgery."
"The Guild...The Alchemist Guild?"
Silence again. Though there were a lot of unanswered questions, she failed to find things to talk about. And just when she thought things couldn't get any worse, Morgana landed a hand on her stomach. Upon the marred flesh around her navel, those fingers grazed. Her insides felt peculiar. The sensation soon returned in haste. And that's it; Hestia knew she couldn't take it anymore. She grabbed Morgana's wrist, grumbling.
"What is it that you're looking for?"
Morgana looked at her oddly, pulling her hand away.
"I'm not finished. What's the matter with you?"
"Alright, then. I've got what I needed anyway."
"What did you find?"
The woman sighed and stood up, walking towards the dresser.
"Well, for now, I found that," She returned and handed over what appeared to be a clean towel, "you stink like a donkey and absolutely need a bath."
Irvine didn't hold back as he charged towards his opponent. He never did, even for the newly trained soldiers. He swung his halberd—a war spear with axe blade—sideways, breaking the defense of the boy before him. Scared, the poor lad stumbled backwards, dropping his sword and shield. He put up his arms as the tip pointed at his neck.
"I yield, Sir!"
"One slash and you're falling like a crumb. What will our army become? Next!"
A commotion rose among the initiates. They pushed, pointed at one another, whispering 'your turn, no, your turn!' to each other. Hearing the fuss, the Grand Paladin slammed his weapon to the ground. The crowd went quiet in an instant.
"Silence! What a bunch of clowns you are," he glared at the neophytes, "there'd be no time to hesitate in war. Either you strike or get struck first. Next!"
An initiate in leather armor was pushed forward. She looked back and mouthed a curse to whoever did that. Retreating wasn't an option, so she ultimately had to enter the sparring session. Irvine observed her silently. The girl was just like any other recruits—skinny and full of curiosity, a hormonal teenager just like he once was decades ago.
She went to the weapon rack; the chest-length auburn hair flowed behind her as she walked.
"No shield?" Irvine asked when she stood by, equipped with a single short sword.
"No, Your Excellency."
"Very well, then. Ready your stance. En garde...!"
The girl nodded and he dashed at full speed. She waited for the perfect timing, just an inch before his blade touched her skin, before dodging to the side. As the Grand Paladin realized he hit an empty air, he swerved and blocked her sneak attack from behind. A loud clang echoed as two weapons clashed. Irvine pushed frontward and so did she, neither held back for a while.
What was once quiet and fearful bunch, with enthusiasm the recruits began to cheer and watch.
"A short sword, your weapon won't last long against this halberd," Irvine growled, withstanding on his feet.
"Yes, Sir," she gave away; letting the man rammed his weight ahead, "it won't."
Taking advantage of her size and agility, she pulled herself to the ground, sliding through between his legs and stood back up behind him,
"But it's much lighter than yours."
Irvine smiled when he felt the tip of her sword at his nape. The crowd stood astounded as the Grand Paladin threw the spear and put his arms up, surrendering in the match.
"Impressive," he turned around, "what's your name, young soldier?"
The girl sheathed the sword and bowed, "Sethra of Albridge, Your Excellency."
He glanced at the other initiates and looked at her again, pondering. She had thought of a simple strategy. Evasion was a basic tactic of any battle yet not many people could execute it with finesse. Never mind she managed to turn his strength to her advantage in a short time. For such a young age, it'd be unfortunate if she only ended up as one of the garrison guards.
"Now, Sethra of Albridge," he unclasped his Paladin breastplates. Joined on the ground next the gauntlets and iron greaves. Then, in his shirt and buckled trousers, he stood ready, "shall we test the true strength of a soldier?"
Sethra had her lips parted in awe. She didn't expect the sparring session would have a one-on-one unarmed combat. Nobody did. The rookies whispered among themselves, voicing their surprise.
Reluctantly, she put away the sword and began removing her armor, matching her appearance with the Grand Paladin. They stood before each other. His tall stature was a goliath to her figure. Nonetheless, closed fists and everything, both took an equal stance before fighting.
The Grand Paladin, in fact, did not kill the dragon using his blade only. The story was told from tavern to tavern. When everyone from his platoon perished before his eyes, Irvine had single-handedly wrestled with its humongous tail and fiery head. His renowned title, the Dragonslayer—the sole survivor of the battle of Cadaver Hills—wasn't for nothing but such display of the raw power of a human. Sethra remembered that well and she knew it'd be foolish to even think of winning this time.
"Come on, hit me back!"
Seconds passed and not once had she riposted his attack. Rolling and evading to the side, all she did was dodging without respite. His brute strength almost got her in a close call. The girl leaped backwards and did a somersault before his eyes.
"Heh, you're nimble."
"Thank you, Sir," her chest heaved, controlling her breath to stay vigilant. Not only him, the maneuver took everyone, including herself by surprise. Sethra might have made it look easy but inside, her chest pounded and her head spun for a while. She was no pugilist but she knew a thing or two about being fast. Her previous life as an urchin had taught her for years.
More punches were laid only to be evaded again. For him, this was an interesting combat albeit a frustrating one. It's been more than five minutes yet not once was he able to strike her body. The girl was almost invisible—like fighting with the wind.
"Dodging would only take you nowhere!"
Sethra gulped. He was right. The fight wouldn't end if things went on like this. She knew defeat was inevitable. The question now was how to make that less painful. Even the knockback of his assault was enough to make her body throbbed.
And at times like this, she wished she had a sword.
"In battle, your opponents might knock your weapons out and you'd be left unarmed," as if reading her mind, he said between his blows. The cheer from the audience got louder. Apparently, on-duty guards started coming to watch the duel. Irvine finally grabbed her by the collar and tossed her to the ground.
Sethra cried. The collision hit her hard. The impact shocked her entire body, like bones being crushed to no remains. And before she could even recover, the Grand Paladin had climbed and sat on her stomach. Fist up high, aiming at her face. She couldn't move. She couldn't run. She couldn't escape. One way or another, she had no choice but yield.
However, she decided to do something else.
Everyone fell in abrupt silent. The moment when the loud, painful scream from the Dragonslayer as she grappled his groin and squeezed the mass between her fingers—was blasphemous, like seeing a heinous sin before their very eyes. They held their breath as his body staggered to the ground, finally giving her chance to get away.
Sethra stood back up and tackled him on the back of his knees. Now she had him lying face down with her boot on his back. Their stances were upturned.
"You...fight dirty..." Irvine's voice was a mixture of awe and agony.
"Apologize, Your Excellency," Sethra realized what she just did. The man was a high member of Paladin Order and he had as much of authority to make her life like hell, if he wanted to, "I—I didn't mean to..."
She withdrew her foot off his back only to be yanked down quickly by her hair. The girl yelped. She didn't see it coming. As her body hit the ground, he seized her arm and the two continued to wrestle once more.
"Now we go by your rule. I can fight dirty too," Irvine grunted in her ear as he had her by the neck. They rolled for a while before he managed to find her unguarded side. His punch was audible with a thud the second she felt a fist to the gut. The girl toppled to the side and coughed her insides out, feeling the burn in her abdomen.
"We're not finished."
Holding her stomach, Sethra curled like a ball. It felt like someone had stirred her innards into a void, spinning sideways and upside down.
"Come on, girl!"
Suddenly, someone was clapping from the crowd. Irvine turned to find a familiar face walked closer. The heraldic royal blue armor distinguished him from other soldiers. His long flaxen hair was tied into a ponytail, shining under the sun.
"What a magnificent demonstration of strength, I expect no less from you." The man offered his hand.
"Be easy on the recruits, will you?"
"Heh, not a chance if you want a resilient army," Irvine grinned. He grabbed his hand and stood up. "At least one of them is better than I thought," he glanced at the writhing girl.
"Take her to the barracks. This sparring session is over," Lieutenant Harding commanded the initiates, turning to his friend afterwards, "Come. Walk with me."
After everyone was dismissed, the two soldiers left the training ground and took a stroll around the stronghold.
"Well, that looks painful. You sure don't wanna get it checked?"
"Were I you, I'd freak out to death," Harding said, wincing "ooh, the thought of me not being able to enjoy pleasure again."
"That is disgusting."
"Really, Irvine, when was the last time you hammered the nails?"
"There are more important things in life than 'hammering nails' I suppose."
"No wonder you're so cross all the time," the lieutenant gave a chuckle, "you never take care of yourself."
"How very attentive of you."
"I mean, seriously, get yourself a woman. Or a man. Anyone. Someone to make that blood hot and pumping."
"I want nothing to do with the words 'hot' and 'pumping' whatever that means."
"But there's nothing better than the good old-fashioned, toes-curling, headboard-slamming—"
"Why are we still talking? Haven't you got some unholy things to do?"
"My, such attitude," Harding said, snickering "someone shall tame that righteous halberd of yours."
"Go away, you're embarrassing me."
The flaxen-haired man threw his head back, laughing out loud.
"Fine, fine. I just mean that Goddess gave us these...parts and urges. They're not just for looks, Irvine. It's healthy to have a company once in a while."
"I'm not you. I don't have people thrown themselves at me all the time."
"Try a different approach then. Be less cranky," he shrugged, "not everyone loves their dragons to be slain right away."
"...you did not just say that."
He laughed again, patting the Paladin's shoulder, "Sorry, man, I just missed you so much. It's been months!"
"I thought the trip was supposed to be longer. When did you return?"
"Last night. Kelredan Empire is stubborn as ever, the diplomacy didn't do much," Harding looked at the trees around, the birds were chirping on the branches "How are you doing anyway?"
"The usual. My castle life would bore you. Tell me more about your journey."
"Hmm, fair enough," he said, "Well, Kelredan Isles...beautiful beaches, beautiful people. Always nice weather to be in skimpy outfits. Scrumptious seafood—I didn't know I was allergic to clams though. Alas, again Empress Madekwe refuses to sign the treaty. I bet my coins she would still in like, forever. Ha, King Arallan and his demands—got the emissaries quite uptight for weeks! But aside from that...things were fantastic."
"Hmph, sometimes I want to be a Royal Guard," Irvine smirked, "grand feasts and lavish trips whenever."
"True, not that I'm complaining, though I prefer the great respect that you Paladins got."
"That's not respect, people are just scared."
Harding scoffed, "Is that why you train the recruits yourself now? To frighten them?"
"To make them confront their fear."
"You're being too harsh, Irvine. They're just teenagers."
"If they couldn't face me now, they couldn't face bigger threats later."
"Well, hmm, can't really argue with that," Harding said again, "speaking of which, that ginger girl you had a barbaric brawl with. She was rather brave...or foolish I think."
"She's different indeed. And I'm not talking about her skills."
"Which rank will she join?"
"I didn't ask. Let's hope she'll enter yours."
"A Royal Guard? You want her to be like me?"
"That girl's too adept to be in garrison. And it'd be a waste if she's dead in The Union."
Lieutenant Harding released a long sigh,
"The Union. Right. I just hope someday you'd spill me the beans."
"Keep dreaming. Not in a million years, I would."
As a sworn holy knight, Irvine wasn't allowed to say anything. About The Union, the oath, and other things in the Paladinhood. It's just the way things were, like a secret society it was. The Grand Paladin honored the code rather highly to disclose any detail to anyone—even to his childhood friend for life.
He thought back to their younger days. A scrawny boy with crooked nose and acne problems he was. Being picked on by other recruits was his daily meal. Ugly, they said. Puny, they said. Worthless, they said. Everyone was insecure and wanted to feel better about themselves.
Except for the sixteen-year-old Harding, the only one who loathed seeing young Irvine got beaten constantly—the only one who actually stepped in instead of watching from the corner. Harding was the only one who'd talked to him like a human being, like a person he should be.
"Really, not even a little? Shall I drug you with a gallon of strongest ale in the tavern then? I've been thinking about doing it."
"I'd pay a sovereign to see you succeed."
Rumor had it The Union was a harsh initiation of the Paladin Order. Only the holy knights knew what went on in the ceremony itself. To give oneself to the Paladinhood was to give away one's old life and identity. For Goddess and the Church, they served until the end. Those who fell in The Union would be having the notice delivered to the family—should they have any—forbidding them to attend the memorial. They died a holy death, they said. Not befitting a common funeral. And so, for this reason, many parents prohibited their children to join their rank.
"What kind of dirty little secret I wonder. Is it an orgy? I hope it's an orgy. But then why would someone die in an orgy? Hmm."
"Why? Why is it always about fornication with you?"
"No. Not really," his grin returned, "sometimes it's about fornication with other people."
"Samael's knees! It's impossible to talk to you," Irvine groaned. He had his face straight, baffled beyond words. The lieutenant burst into a laugh, almost in tears even.
"Yeah, right, sorry. Goddess, I can't help it sometimes!" Harding spoke between his laughter. "I mean, you Paladins are so damn secretive. Your troops wouldn't even let me in the tower though they knew who I was."
"You went to the tower?"
"Just before I came here," he cleared his throat, "seems like it wasn't only me who was hoping to see you there."
Irvine stopped in his tracks.
"Someone wishes to see me?"
"Yes, I met a soldier by the courtyard. He was...hmm...wrecked I'd say? He had bandages around his limbs. Said he was looking for you."
"I don't know," Harding said again, "he rambled about vampires. Poor lad, he looked terrified. I told him to wait in the sick bay before I went looking for you."
"I know, right? I don't know why he talked about something like that. Do you really know him?"
Suddenly, the Grand Paladin felt a massive lump in his throat.
"I should go."
Morgana showed up at the door, saying the bath was ready. The woman had dismissed herself, leaving her alone in a towel for a while. Hestia could hear noises from the other side—from a kitchen or some sort. Cracking of firewood, clanging of metal cauldrons and pots, the rustling of things being moved, and other sounds she couldn't make of.
"Hold onto me," Morgana said, seeing her struggle to arise. Hestia complied, circling her right arm around her shoulders while propping herself with another. The woman pulled her body closer to get her on her feet. Her nose unintentionally brushed against Morgana's neck. And in that second, Hestia thought she smelled like some herbs or spices.
"You're really tall," Morgana looked at her when she finally managed to stand up. She was right. To her own towering height, the young physician was only of her nose level. When she put her arm around her, Hestia could almost feel the woman would sink into her clinch—like a stuffed doll in an embrace of a child.
"Ah!" The pain spread throughout her veins. It was a mistake to move the injured knee ever so slightly. Even going ahead was difficult. Hestia bit her lip while making tiny jumps using her left foot, "Goddess!"
"Goddess?" Morgana muttered, eyes on the crippled woman, "interesting."
The apprentice said nothing and continued to escort her to the other room. The destination was just next door, right by the kitchen. Morgana's house was really small. The halls were narrow. It's a relief she didn't have to make long trips between rooms.
Her eyes swept around as they entered the washroom. It was smaller than the bedchamber—perhaps half of the space or even less. Not much of sunlight went through; the window was covered by a white curtain. On the wall, hung a large brush and some rags. In the middle, stood a wooden tub. Hestia expected it to be filled with water but there's nothing inside. The water—hot water Morgana had boiled before, was in several buckets next to the tub. In the room was also a stool, a woven basket of soaps and amenities, another basket with more rags, a chamberpot, and a standing mirror by the corner.
"Wait here," Morgana guided her to the stool. Hestia sat down and watched the woman poured water into the tub. One by one, her thin arms hoisted those buckets. They looked heavy. Veins prodded from her forehead every time she made a lift.
"I wish I could help you."
"This?" droplets of sweat poured off her brows, "No need. I'm used to it."
Come to think of it, Hestia hadn't seen anyone else around. Morgana probably lived by herself in this house. She wondered whether the woman had a family or not.
"You can get in," Morgana said again, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand. The tub is filled with water now. She then headed for the baskets, searching for something.
Hestia took off the towel and dropped it on the floor. Next, she lowered her breechcloth. However, the scanties got stuck around her bandaged knee. She slid off the other leg easily but it's too painful to fold her right one. Morgana turned around and noticed it right away.
The woman walked closer, "here, let me help you."
"No, I can—"
"It's alright," Morgana spoke in a soft voice, "straighten your leg."
She felt her ears hot the moment Morgana kneeled before her. Not only ears—her cheeks, face, neck, everything. Her body tightened as her heart pounded against her chest. Loudly, as if it would leap out of her mouth any moment right now.
"You really don't need to—"
"Hestia, it's alright," Morgana looked up, a smile formed on her lips. Her hand reached the article and pulled it, gently, straight through her injured limb. She could feel those fingers grazed upon her skin, on her thigh, her calf, down to her foot and the tip of her toes.
As a familiar pressure built within her stomach, Hestia could only look away, doing her best covering all the right places.
"Up, place your right leg here," Morgana adjusted the wounded leg, helping her lowered herself into the tub, "don't let the bandage get wet."
A sigh of contentment escaped her lips. The dirt from her skin disappeared into the water as she submerged herself. Closing her eyes, she embraced the new feeling. Warmth. It was all over her, healing her body and soul. After all those times spent in dry, somber days of filth and pitch blackness, now she's basked in light and tenderness, finally feeling like human again.
"Is the water too hot?"
Morgana took a soapy brush with long wooden handle and began scouring her back with it. The bristles were a little coarse against the skin. It wasn't unpleasant, rather, Hestia somewhat enjoyed the sensation. She wanted to do it on her own but alas, she couldn't help but surrender to the attention.
"You spoke of the Goddess earlier," the woman suddenly said.
"I do? What about it?"
"You lost your memories but still remember who you worship," the brush moved to the upper arms and chest, "you also retain basic cognition with your surroundings. You know how to speak the common tongue, and most importantly, you know manners."
"So, what does that mean?"
"You remember things you've been taught since small. Kind of like indoctrination—it's ingrained in your soul." The woman lifted her maimed leg and carefully brushed around it.
"I'd say your predicament is temporary. Perhaps everything will return after a while."
Her self-consciousness returned as Morgana scrubbed her breasts and stomach, "Um, Morgana, you don't need to wash me..."
"Oh, please," the woman paid no heed, the brush kept rubbing briskly "you can't even take off your undergarments by yourself."
Hestia frowned a little. She hated being in this state. Helpless and handicapped, it's no different with her being like a small child.
"Close your eyes."
She couldn't even reply when suddenly Morgana poured the basin of water over her head.
"Do you...always treat your patients like this?" Hestia asked when the woman started to stroke her hair. There were no bubbles but it smelled like a flower. Morgana had used some sort of aromatic liquid to wash the tresses.
"Why are you asking?"
"I don't know. You seem to be so used to it."
"We don't normally have strangers stranded in Ravaged Woods—especially with a memory loss and crippled limb," Morgana's fingers massaged the scalp lightly "so, no. I do not."
Their eyes met for a moment.
"You look sad."
"No, I just—I just feel like a burden. Can I at least help you with anything?"
"Don't worry about it," Morgana smiled, scooping the water with a metal bowl "close your eyes."
Again, lukewarm water poured over her head, rinsing the remaining liquid off her hair. Morgana's hands kept stroking all over her body, making sure there's no dirt intact. The bathwater, however, had gradually turned murky with filth.
"Alright, all done."
"You're so kind," Hestia muttered under her breath. It was supposed to go unnoticed.
"I—I mean, you keep doing this and telling me not to worry about things..."
Morgana arched her brows; her lips formed a quizzical sneer.
"Do you want me to boss you around instead? Make you clean the house in that state?"
"Uh, no—no, I don't mean it like that."
She lowered her voice, "Hestia, I simply do what needs to be done."
"Then why you?" Hestia asked again, "why not other villagers or Elder Nerida?"
"You want a senile man to bathe a young lady like you?" Morgana stood up; reaching for a couple of rags from the basket "I'm his apprentice, the only another in this village with medical knowledge. Who do you think is more appropriate to take care of you?"
Hestia looked at her in the eyes.
"I'll find a way to repay your kindness someday," she said "...I still believe you're a good person, though."
Morgana rolled her eyes and said nothing as she guided her out. The water shifted, waves running over the side of the tub, sliding to the floor.
"Sit here and dry yourself," Morgana hand her a towel before heading somewhere. There was a smaller basket with Hestia's ragged clothes around her arm.
"Where are you going...?"
The woman gave an impish tone, "thought you wanna be independent. Changing your mind real quick?"
"I—I don't...No, that's not what I meant!" Hestia blurted out. Her cheeks reddened, "Goddess, you love messing with people..."
"On the contrary, I'm mostly serious," the brunette shrugged, "you said you wanted to be useful. How about letting me exploit you for my own amusement?"
"You're joking right..." she said with an innocuous face.
Morgana's eyes squinted and her cheeks arose as she laughed. In that second, Hestia swallowed, feeling her heart skipped a beat. The woman wasn't exactly the belle of the ball but she thought the sight was beautiful.
"Still believe I'm a good person then?"
"I—um, whatever you say, I guess..."
"Good. I see you in a minute," Morgana smiled, walking towards the door.
"Where are you taking my clothes?"
"I will burn them before they spread plagues," the woman glanced at the dirty pile of fabric "it's a wonder how you managed to stay in the same underpants for who knows how long."
Hestia had rubbed herself dry for a couple of minutes when she looked closely at her own skin. Scars. Arms, thighs, stomach—dried scars everywhere.
What happened? Why do I have these things?
Suddenly, she wanted nothing more than to look at herself in the mirror.
She bolted from her seat and made small hops with one foot to the corner of the room. The standing mirror wasn't that big, but just enough to be able to see her whole body. She stood before it and immediately froze in horror.
There, worse than she imagined, was a body marred beyond repair. She turned around and her eyes began to water at the sight. A large, diagonal ridge of mangled flesh spread across her back, from her right shoulder down to her left scapula. It felt rough against her fingertips—like touching the surface of an uneven rock. Scars were all over her pale skin. From lines of stab wounds to disfigured spots of burnt tissues. Brown, reddish, dark marks of injuries covered her body. She turned around to look at her face.
Eyes—gray eyes. Underneath a pair of bushy eyebrows. Her lips were thick, lacking in color. Her fingers made their way to her cheeks, tracing every line and crook on her face. Sharp jaw, prominent cheekbones—being emaciated had made her looked wretched beyond words.
"Hestia," a voice called from behind. She turned to find Morgana had returned. Quickly, she wrapped herself in the towel.
"That's an axe wound. The one on your back," she walked closer with a concerned look on her face.
"Not just any axe. That one was a great axe—the kind for chopping trees. I don't know how you even survived that one."
Hestia swallowed, the flashing images started coming in her head. A trembling chill came down upon her as she recalled the moment someone hit her on her back. Axe—a great axe, she said. Someone was trying to murder her that night.
"Yes, it was yours," Morgana said again "it's strange since the wound looks recent yet it's dried already. And the fact that you don't even feel a thing..."
"So...ugly..." Hestia whispered to herself while looking at her own reflection again.
"I look so repulsive," she said again, louder this time. A single teardrop rolled down her cheek.
"That's not true. Don't say that to yourself."
"But the scars..."
"I'm guessing that's your battle scars," Morgana stood behind her, looking at her through the mirror "you've been in many combats, haven't you?"
"You have a beautiful body, Hestia."
The abrupt statement made her eyes widened in surprise.
"I'm stating facts as your physician," Morgana said again "I have seen many bodies and none as physically fit as you. Look again in the mirror."
She didn't really notice it before but now that the woman said it, her body did look well-toned with defined curves of muscles. Combined with the fact that she harbored countless wounds, this could only mean one thing,
"Am I...Am I a..."
"Yes," Morgana nodded, "I also think you're a soldier."