I slip in and out of bitter blackness, and even when I am mostly unconscious the pain keeps me from resting fully. My bones hurt, as I lie under the darkening sky, thrashing feebly from side to side trying to find warmth amid the dank mosses. My teeth chatter as the fever rages and I roll myself over to try and bury myself in the ground.
A hand stops me, holding my burrowing hands firmly and I find myself rolled back on my back. I have as much strength as a newborn rabbit and I cannot fight. For the first time, I understand the resignation of the prey animal at bay finally, wounded and dying. Let me die with dignity; let it be a final single bite.
I close my eyes again, hoping I will never open them again, and as I slip once more into a fitful unconsciousness that is in no way like sleep, I feel something unexpected. Is it my imagination as I die, or has a warm soft blanket really been wrapped round me?
The passing of time is impossible to gauge but when my eyes open again, there is indeed a blanket around me, and it is dark. I feel strong arms raising me, and a wooden cup is placed to my lips and I am made to drink. The liquid is warm and reminds me of the willows at the waterside in some distant memory, but as I drink it, beneath the sweetness of honey, there is a bitter woody taste that is not unpleasant. I swallow and am allowed to lie back down. There is another, rougher blanket that has been eased under me and a pillow too.
I fight the fever, alternating between throwing the covers off me and clutching them tighter round me. I drift into dreams that have me striding amid the stars of the heavens and wake to find more of the willow-drink being poured into me. How long this goes on for, I do not know, for the passing of day into night and back again seems to blur and ripple and become confused.
Eventually I wake, and I sense that something has changed. My skin is neither burning nor clammy and when I open my eyes properly, I can see without that haze of fever distorting everything. Near me is the old woman, wrapped in a heavy cloak that I at first take to be made of rags. As my eyes clear, I see it is not. It is made entirely of thousands of feathers, arranged in ranks that grown longer the closer to the hem they are. Near her neck, brightly coloured feathers form a ruff.
She gives me a stern look and comes over, carrying something in her left hand. I may be free of fever, but I am also free of any strength, and I lie there passively to await my fate. I cannot imagine that someone who has cared for me these last days can mean to harm me now, and as she kneels next to me, I see that what she carries is a bowl of thin broth, with a spoon in it and my mouth fills with saliva at the smell of it.