Shayne twitched. His body ached all over, and his head was throbbing. His left foot was cold. Where was he? The smell of herbs, the sound of humming, the soft something he was sitting against… this wasn’t the camp. Where were the jests, the laughter, the smell of stale liquor?
His eyelids were crusty, but he pried them open. He was in a large stone building. The humming was coming from his right. He turned his head carefully, and something wet fell off his forehead. Liquid dripped down through his eyebrows. He raised a hand to wipe it away.
His arm wouldn’t move. It was bound. Panic set in. Maybe Broderick hadn’t settled for just a beating. Were they going to torture him? It was only a couple of coins!
His legs were free. Shayne clenched his fists and rolled off the cushions. Pain exploded up his left leg and he collapsed to the floor. He was helpless.
The hand that settled on his shoulder was small. “Up you get, lad.”
He craned his head upward to see a woman with grey hair and a rounded figure. There was determination mixed with the kindness in her eyes. Kindness? Shayne decided he was dreaming, and allowed her to help him back into bed. The woman calmly picked up the blanket he had dropped.
“Are you too warm?”
He found his voice, but it was raspy. “No, it’s a little chilly.”
She used a corner of the blanket to dry his face, dabbing the torn skin gently, then arranged it over his lap. “Are you hungry?”
She walked to a fireplace against the stone wall and poured from a kettle into a bowl, then brought it over. “I haven’t been out to check my traps today, so there isn’t any meat in there; but it’s got some ginger, which should help with muscle recovery.” She put it down on a little table beside his bed.
Shayne used his free arm to lift the bowl to his mouth. The soup was warm and spicy down his throat. His stomach growled as the liquid entered his body, and he put the bowl down, half-empty. This wasn’t a dream. “Who are you, and where am I?”
The woman pushed the blanket off his left foot, then lifted a cloth from a bucket of water and placed it over his ankle, which he could now see was swollen twice its size. The coolness helped ease the pain. “My name is Lila, but most people just call me Mother.”
Lila scraped a mush of crushed greens up from the floor, which must have fallen off his face earlier. “I’ll forgive you for that, young man. You are under my roof, after all, unless you’d like to leave.”
“Listen, I don’t have any money on me. You can stop.”
Her hands stilled and she looked at him. “It’s been paid for.”
That gave him pause. Why would Broderick have him beaten only to pay for his care? It didn’t make sense.
“Not by whom you think.”
Shayne rolled his eyes, but not before a memory of his mother presented itself. It had been a long time since one of those had surfaced. He replied sarcastically, “Whom.”
Lila smiled. “The same one who granted me his pardon.”
“Does he have a name?”
“His name is Jesus.”
He drank the rest of his soup, mentally scrolling through the names of the rogues he knew: Corin, Mikah, Weller, Hiram, Radclyf… “I’ve never met someone by that name.”
“Not yet. But I’ll introduce you later. Right now, you need to rest.” She approached him with a bowl of fresh green goop.
Shayne tilted his head away. “What is that?”
“A poultice made of goldenrod and aloe vera. It’ll help heal the cuts, and bring some of the swelling down.” She scooped out some of the paste and daubed it over his forehead and cheek.
He grimaced at the feel of the mush on his skin. Who was Jesus, and why had he paid this woman to take care of him?
Shayne stayed with Lila for two weeks before she let him off his cot. Restlessness ate him up long before his stay was over, but the pain that shot up his leg every time he tried to escape was a rigorous preventative. He spent a third week learning how to walk again.
In the meantime, she filled him up with all types of cures and food and stories. The food he didn’t mind—It was definitely better than Hiram's—but after all the herbs he ingested, he was sure he’d never get sick again. And the stories… it turned out that Jesus was some kind of historical / mythological character whose forgiveness had inspired her toward good deeds. Shayne didn’t mind the free care, but he was ready to get out of there. People motivated by money were a lot easier to understand.
“Where are you going?” Lila entered the door with a fresh rabbit in one hand and a basket of greens in the other.
“Is it any of your business, Lila?” Shayne snapped. He continued struggling to pull his boot over his wrapped foot.
“I told you, you can call me Mothe—”
“Forget it. Listen, you’ve expressed your gratitude to Jesus. I’m cured. Now I’m going back to my…” He trailed off. He had never really thought of what they were to him.
“Your family?” She was fishing for details again.
“My group. They’ll be waiting for me.”
She took a knife and began to skin the rabbit. “The same group who beat you and left you to die?”
“I wouldn’t have died.” The boot finally slipped past the bulk of his ankle. It was tight, but it would do. “They were just teaching me a lesson, which I learned.”
“With your ankle in the state it was, you wouldn’t have been able to escape anything if it tried to attack you. With your arm, you wouldn’t have been able to fight it off. And even if all predators stayed away, your cuts would have gotten infected and you would have died a slow, feverish death.”
Shayne rolled his eyes and tugged on his other boot.
Lila put the pelt to the side, then slit the rabbit’s belly and gently removed the innards. “Will they take you back?”
This was a thought he had been trying to keep from his mind, but he only had one option. He stood up. “I was always the fastest. They need me.”
“You won’t be the fastest for a while. And what if the beating wasn’t enough, and they won’t forgive you?”
He strode toward the door. “I’ll make them.”
“Good luck earning forgiveness.” Lila dunked the empty carcass into a bucket of water. “It has to be given.”
“Well, thanks for the luck. And I’d offer to come back with payment, but since Jesus already paid for me, I won’t offend him.”
“How considerate. Are you sure you won’t stay for supper?”
“Thank you, but no.”
“Do you want me to pack some poultices for the next time you get injured?”
“I’ll be fine.”
“What about your friends? I’m sure there’s always need for—”
“Give it up, Mother!”
She glanced up with a start, and he grimaced. Where had that come from?
“Forget it. I’m leaving, so, thanks, and bye.”
She sighed, and walked toward him and the door. He turned and left.
Shayne stopped accordingly. “Weller, it’s me.”
A green-clad man descended from his perch in a bushy maple. “What’re you doing back?”
“I see that. What are you doing here?”
“I may be another mouth to feed, but I’m also another two hands to get.”
“Aye, but two hands require two feet.”
Shayne and Weller both turned at the unexpected voice.
“And you only have one that works.” Broderick appeared around a trunk, the usual leather-sheathed knives around his waist giving no sound of his approach. He fingered the ivory handle of his favorite. “I thought we’d only have to kill you once, Shayne.”
“I was wrong. I shouldn’t have held out on you. I won’t ever lie about my takings again.”’
“Because you won’t be earning any takings with a game leg like that. We could hear you limping from a mile away.”
Shayne straightened. They had to take him back. “I’ll be your reconnaissance man, your lookout, and you’ll have less hassle when everyone wants in on the action. I’ll watch the fires and set up the tents. It’ll be worth it.”
Broderick smiled. “You’re desperate.”
Shayne stuttered, then closed his mouth. He was desperate. “If you don’t want me back, I’m sure there are plenty of men in the village that would love to have me do their dirty work for them.”
“You’d be willing to muck stalls and plow fields? Even if anyone hired you, I think not. I think you’d do just about anything to be accepted back.”
He couldn’t pass up the chance, even if it made him look weak. “Name it.”
“Whoever cured you must have money for medicine. I want it.”
“No! The money. Get it.”
Shayne shifted his weight, trying to ease the throbbing that was starting up in his ankle again. “The old wench makes the medicine herself.”
“A clever wench. She had you think so. Now go.”
“But—” The smell of Hiram’s cooking floated through the air. His stomach grumbled.
“Don’t consider yourself welcome back until you’ve paid the re-entry fee.” Broderick turned away, and Weller hauled himself back up into his tree.
Shayne turned back toward Lila’s place. She’d be out in the woods again soon; something about “leaves in the morning, roots at night” she had said once. Did she have any valuables? He tried to think. Some silver bowls, maybe.
Lila wrapped her shawl over her head, then stepped over the threshold. She closed the door but jiggled it to make sure it was unlocked, the way she always did. “In case someone comes calling, they’ll have a place to wait until Mother comes back,” she’d said.
Shayne watched from behind a bush while she strode onto the worn path. As soon as she was out of sight, he ran to the door and stepped inside. The large stone structure was cool, but he knew nothing of value would be left in here. It was the cozy lean-to that would house anything special.
He rummaged through her drawers, checked behind the vials on her shelves, and lifted the cushions off her bed. There was nothing. He couldn’t go back to Broderick empty-handed.
A chuckle sounded from the doorway. Shayne looked up to see Radclyf, Corin, and Broderick himself standing there.
“Smells good. What’s cooking?” The men grabbed bowls and utensils and helped themselves to the stew that was simmering on top of the coals. “Where’s the loot?”
“I told you, there’s nothing here.”
“Where’s the wench?”
“She’s right here.”
Shayne didn’t turn around. This voice smote him worse than Broderick’s had before. Lila was back.
“Welcome back, Shayne. Are these your friends?” She sashayed between the men and began unloading her basket onto the table. “I see you boys are hungry. I went into town today and traded for some bread. I’ll slice some up for you all.”
Radclyf and Corin traded grins while Lila calmly sliced up the loaf. Broderick eyed Lila, then settled his gaze on Shayne. “You told us she was old, boy, but I see you were going to keep her for yourself.”
His blood started to pound in his ears and his face went hot. “What do you mean?”
“You didn’t learn your lesson. You’re trying to hold out on us again.”
Lila held out the plate of bread, but her eyes were wary. “What are they talking about, Shayne?”
His fists knotted, then he leapt. He didn’t even reach Broderick before something smashed his ankle. The tender spot immediately gave way to excruciating pain, and he crumpled to the floor. The men laughed. Lila screamed. Smoke filled the air.
Shayne coughed. His lungs sucked in the air, but it only seared his throat further. Something was tugging at his good leg, and his head bounced against something hard.
His skin welcomed the relief of cool stone on his back, and breathing became easier. He tried to help the away-from-heat movement, but his body only wanted to curl into a ball and hack up his innards.
He sat up. The spasms had finally given way to shaky breathing.
Lila sat on the stone floor, the edges of her sleeves singed and her skirt torn. “Aloe vera will help with the burns.”
Righteous anger surged within him as he beheld the woman. “Did they hurt you?”
Lila shook her head.
His parched eyes burned. “I am so sorry.”
“After we use the gel, I can boil the rest. The tea will help the airways,” her raspy voice continued, monotone. She shifted her legs and planted her hands on the floor.
Shayne got up first. “Stay sitting. Please.” When she relaxed, he made his way to the cot of which he had been an occupant for so long. Near it were some potted plants that Lila had always kept nearby in case of emergency. He found the one with spiky leaves, broke off a few, and brought them back. “Here, Mother. Let me help you.”
She eyed him tiredly. “You can’t earn forgiveness.”
He knelt next to her. “Can’t I try?”
“No.” Lila shook her head. “You can only serve in gratitude, for it has already been given.”