Day 10

Title: Day 10
Author: tarotgal
Rating: PG
Summary: Lionel is in the middle of a quest when he catches a cold that knocks him out.
Notes: Written during my 12 Ficlets in 12 Days in 2020-21 project project for Anonymous

Lionel Lovelace couldn’t remember the last time he was so cold. No, he wasn’t just cold—he was chilled to the bone. His body shook with shivers, and he had to clench his jaw to keep his teeth from constantly chattering. The market streets were so overly-crowded, he was forced to move slowly, so the fact that he felt miserable and hunched over as he walked drew no extra attention to him. And he alternated between keeping his arms crossed over his chest and jamming his bare hands into the pockets of his overcoat. Neither arrangement was as warm as he hoped, but he kept trying the other one in hopes that it would surprise him. It didn’t. No matter how he positioned himself, he was freezing.

And the fierce winter wind was making matters worse. The market tents were constructed in such a way that they allowed bursts of wind to pass right through rather than acting as a barrier. It made the tents more stable, but it also made the streets feel like a tunnel, trapping the cold wind inside along with all the shoppers.

Another benefit of the noisy, bustling streets was that his sniffles went unheard and unnoticed. This blasted cold he’d picked up somewhere had started, as his colds often did, with a fiery sore throat and a nose that just wouldn’t stop running no matter how many times he blew it. It was incredibly unbecoming for a gentleman, but he couldn’t help it.

Spotting a tree between a stand that sold fish and another that sold hats, he maneuvered through the crowd to it. Lionel let out a sigh as he leaned back against it for support. It felt nicer than he’d thought it would to not have to hold himself up. The riling in his stomach calmed. The pounding in his head died down. And his stuffed-up nose meant whatever fishy smells were wafting from the fishmongers’ tent didn’t bother him in the least. He closed his eyes to give himself a moment to rest and regroup.

Somewhere in this town was a piece of the crystal. The Wise Wizard had been certain of that, or at least as certain as the old man ever was about anything. Finding and retrieving a piece from a small forest town was the easiest task Lionel had been set to date. Compared to getting a piece away from those vicious pirates, sneaking into the soldiers’ encampment out west, and scaling an active volcano, this seemed like nothing. It seemed like something he would be able to accomplish even with the hindrance of a head cold.

It wasn’t until he reached the town that he began to have his doubts. The piece could be anywhere. On the ship, it had obviously been in the pirate captain’s cabin, in a treasure chest. At the camp, it had to have been in the tent of the opposing army’s general, kept in a secure lockbox. And at the volcano, it could have been nowhere else than at the very top. But here… Lionel didn’t have any idea where to start looking. He could be here for days, perhaps weeks. Perhaps even longer.

He needed a plan. The Wise Wizard had drummed that into his head since Lionel had been just a kid. He was supposed to think logically, to reason his way through a difficult situation, and come up with a workable plan. But right now, with his head throbbing and his nose running and his body shivering, the only plan that seemed worth pursuing was finding someplace to be warm. And preferably safe. But definitely warm. Warm was a must.

As another shiver traveled through him, his breath began to hitch. He had only one good handkerchief left on his person, and he hated to use it if he didn’t have to. Pressing the side of his hand to his nose with just the right amount of pressure was usually enough to keep a sneeze at bay. He felt the urge to sneeze rise and fall. His racing breath slowed. His tense, hunched shoulders relaxed and met the tree trunk again. Excellent. Sniffling was easily missed in a crowd of this size, but someone was likely to notice him sneezing. And the less attention he drew to himself just now, the better. When he found and stole the crystal shard, strangers from out of town would be the first suspects. The longer he went unnoticed, the less likely it would be that someone would come after him.

But sneezing and stealthing were not remotely compatible. And his sneezes were more powerful than he gave them credit for. “Hekischoo! Heykzshoo!” He clapped a hand over his nose and mouth, wincing at his terrible fortune. They’d gotten away from him and, oh, he needed to sniffle some more.

It was a few moments before he risked opening his eyes, hoping against hope that no one was looking at him. But the scene before him was no longer just of the market but of a pair of brilliant blue eyes. An old woman wearing what appeared to be a lumpy, handmade knit hat stood directly in front of him, far too close for comfort. And those eyes bore into him as though she knew his secrets—all of his secrets. Everything from why he’d run away from home when he barely old enough to read to the mission he was on now.

“You sick?” she asked, her voice uneven and creaking like a rocking chair.

“D’no,” he answered unconvincingly, having to chase the word with half a dozen little sniffles.

“Aye, you’re sick. So what’re you doing out here?”

“I’m… I’m, ah…” He’d practiced his excuses in his head during the long coach ride and then the hike through the forest. He’d had a plan, knowing just how to answer when asked a question like this. Yet, when it came now, he couldn’t remember a damn thing he’d rehearsed. His head felt light, spacy, like his whole body was suddenly untethered. Every time he sniffled, the dizziness got just a little more intense. Desperate, he cast his gaze around. It fell on the booth beside him. “Hats!” The word came as a surprise to both of them. “Here to… Heyyyihzshooo! Sniff! Here to buy hats.”

She narrowed her eyes at him, her brow a thick, unmovable line. “Well, what a jolly coincidence, given I’m the town hatter.”

Lionel tried for a weak smile that he hoped he could morph into a more confident one. But neither sort of smile seemed possible at the moment, because his face fell again. “Hekkkschooo!” That one had been especially strong, and he sniffed strongly afterward to keep his nose from running. But the sharp intake of breath worsened his lightheadedness. He closed his eyes, trying and failing to brace himself for the sensation of the world spinning and falling around him.

When he opened his eyes again, he wasn’t surprised to see blue eyes staring back at him. But it was a bit of a jolt to realize that those eyes belonged to a young woman about his age. Yet they resembled the old woman’s so much so that they might have been kin. A further shock was that he no longer stood in the busy town market but instead lay in a bed in a small, dimly-lit room.

Alarmed, he sat straight up, heart racing, body trembling at the unexpected, vulnerable position he suddenly found himself in. He reached for the Dancing Dagger he kept cleverly concealed in the inside pocket of his tunic only to have his hand touch his undershirt instead. Looking down, Lionel found he had been stripped of all of his clothing apart from his undermost layer. His eyes darted around the room and fell on a chair by the fireplace where his garments had been placed, neatly folded and stacked by size with his trusty boots beneath the chair. It would take him only a few seconds to leap from bed, close the distance to the chair, and slide his hard-won dagger out from its hiding place, assuming that it hadn’t been found and taken from him already. And assuming that he could stand up in the first place.

The room spun around him, and he squeezed his eyes shut to try to keep the sensation from overwhelming all of his senses. He felt flushed with heat and nauseated like he might get sick. A gentle hand touched his shoulder and pushed him back upon the bed. He tried to sit back up but found he was no match for that hand and the arm locked at the elbow attached to it. Then something cool and wet was placed upon his forehead. He gave a violent shiver at it and made to throw it off, but his hands were both suddenly very heavy and tingling. He felt himself slipping away and fought to hold onto his consciousness. But, just like the sneeze had won against him, so, too, did the dizziness. He passed out again.

How much time had passed since he had arrived at the town market, he couldn’t say. All he knew was that, when he woke, the lively fire that had been in the hearth before was nothing but a faint red glow amidst cinders and ash. The curtains were drawn over the small window on the far wall, but a gap between the fabric showed darkness outside. It had just been after the lunch hour when he’d reached the market, and even though the tree cover might make it grow darker here than elsewhere in the land, he had a feeling that it was indeed nighttime now. The rumble of hunger in his tummy indicated he had missed dinner in addition to lunch. The solitary hard biscuit he had eaten for breakfast was nothing more than a memory.

When Lionel sat up, something fell from his head into his lap. He took it in hand and found a cool, damp flannel. Suddenly, his certainty of the time vanished. He could not have been out as long as that if the cold compress the young woman had placed on his forehead was still cool to the touch. Its coolness made him shiver, and he longed to slide back down under the warm blankets. But he was too uneasy, too confused, too disoriented. And too sneezy.

hehh!” He raised a fist to his face. “Heyyittchhhh! Hayytzshooo! Heptzshoo!

Footsteps sounded outside the chamber, and a dark shadow appeared in the sliver of space beneath the door. He pulled the blanket up to his shoulders, as if the fraying, patchwork quilt could somehow shield and protect him.

The door opened to reveal the young woman from earlier. He remembered her presence in a vague sort of way, but her beauty had not then registered. The lantern she carried in one hand helped with that as well. With piercing blue eyes, luscious black locks of hair, and a rosy tint to her cheeks, she was decidedly gorgeous, to be sure. “Oh, thank the tree spirits! He’s awake at last!” Her voice had an edge to it, like she wasn’t one to mess with, like she could handle herself just fine in just about any situation. “And by the looks of you, your fever’s finally broken too, has it?”

He didn’t know about that. He hadn’t even known he’d had a fever. He pressed his hand to his forehead, but it didn’t feel anything but normal to him.

She tisked and strode over. He pulled back, his back slamming into the headboard of the bed with a thwacking sound, but she didn’t flinch or break her stride. She laid the back of her hand upon his forehead and nodded. “Much better indeed. Looks like I’ll be able to get in a few winks before the breakfast service.”

“What tibe is it?” he thought to ask. “Who are you? Where ab I? What habbeded?”

She sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed. She took up the fallen flannel before its dampness could soak into the quilt. “Look, you have a lot of questions for me, and I have just as many for you. But I’m exhausted, and you’re still ill. I suggest we save this discussion until the morn. Suffice it to say, you’re safe here.”

Lionel wanted desperately to believe that, but how could he? During all his adventures, he had been kidnapped. He had been tortured. He had fought dark wizards and even darker-souled people. “How cad I trust you?”

She gifted him with a gentle, reassuring smile. “I suppose you can’t. But if I’d meant to rob you, I’d have had ample opportunity to do so while you’ve been asleep. I could have easily stabbed you with your own dagger and dumped your body in the Raging River. And why would I bother helping to heal you if I meant you harm?”

She made a good point there. Lionel wasn’t sure how to answer, but he was spared the need to do so when another sneeze crept up on him. “hehh… heyyyy-YIHShooo!” He sniffed and coughed and sniffed some more.

“I’ll see if I can’t scrounge up some hankies for you. In the meantime, try to get some rest. Best thing for whatever ailment you’ve got there.”

“It’s just a cold,” he said.

“Hmmm. It’s not often that colds involve both fevers and fainting spells, but you’re in a better position to know what ails you than I am. Whatever it is, sleep is the best remedy.” And, with that, she headed for the door. She pulled it open, about to leave, and paused in the doorway. “Bess,” she said softly. “My name’s Bess. Bess Braveheart.”

“Lionel Lovelace,” he replied.

She nodded. “Sweet dreams, Lionel.” And then she was gone, pulling the door closed behind her.


It was nearly two days until Lionel felt strong enough to get out of bed. During that time, Bess regularly brought him meals and irregularly checked in on him to make sure he wasn’t in need of anything she could provide. True to her word, she produced several clean handkerchiefs for him to use. And use them he did. She also explained that this was her father’s inn. The old woman hatter was her father’s mother, her grandmother. And when Lionel had passed out at her feet at the market, she’d had him brought up to one of the few vacant rooms at the inn. Bess had tended to him, nursed him all night, and changed the cool flannel on his head every few minutes, despite his being a complete stranger. It was difficult not to trust someone who demonstrated so much unconditional kindness to him.

And, yet, there he was sneaking down the hallway and trying every door he passed. He had been burned too many times to trust so easily, and he had to be sure. None of the rooms were locked, and nearly every one of them looked identical to his, containing a small bedroom with a nightstand, bed, and a wash basin. A few of them had fireplaces in them, and he counted himself lucky that he had been placed in one that had. His fever was long gone and hadn’t returned, but the nights here were still bitingly cold, and a fire in the hearth warmed the whole room each night as he drifted off to sleep. The room was often still warm when he woke in the middle of the night, coughing or sneezing.

In his search, Lionel also discovered a linen closet piled high with towels, sheets, and blankets as well as a room of hats. Not just a few hats, but hundreds, maybe thousands. And in the spaces where hats weren’t hanging on pegs or hooks or wooden posts rounded into the shapes of heads were skeins of yarn. There was every color Lionel could think of and even a few shades he had no words for. Some had bows. Some had tufts on the sides. Some had big poof balls on the top. But all were colorful, and all looked like they had been made with care. He turned around a few times in the center of the room, taking in the sight of it all. Then he picked up one of the hats. He had expected it to feel like rough, itchy wool, like the sort of hats, scarves, and mittens Mary Mae had made for him and the other Chosen Children every winter, but these were soft to the touch, inside and out.

“If this was all just one big, elaborate scheme to steal one of Grandmother’s hats, then my hat’s off to you.”

Lionel whirled around to see Bess in the doorway, leaning against one of the doorposts, a smirk on her face. “I, ah…” He really should have spent some of his convalescence coming up with an excuse for exploring in case he got caught, but he had nothing to save himself except “Hah-choo?”

As if deciding how to react to his clearly fake sneeze, Bess stared at him for a beat. Two. Three. Then she laughed. She laughed the most pleasing laugh Lionel had ever heard. She laughed so hard she wrapped her arm around her belly and stomped her boot-clad foot on the floor. “You’re too much, Lionel. Come, if you’re well enough to go exploring, then you’re well enough to take your meals downstairs with the rest of the guests.”


From then on, Lionel spent most of his days as well as his evenings in the downstairs tavern. He sat near enough to the fire to keep the chill away but far enough away from most of the patrons who might complain about someone sniffling and sneezing near them while they ate. All the while, Lionel kept an ear open for any talk that might lead him to the crystal shard. It had to be here, which meant people had to know of it. Eventually, someone would say something and rumors would spread. Given that he had absolutely no clues to go on and still little strength to venture far from the inn, sitting and listening in hopes of gathering the right intelligence seemed like a fairly decent plan.

It also gave him a chance to watch Bess. She seemed to grow even more beautiful by the day. Sometimes the room and everyone else in would all fall away and all he saw was her, delivering food, refilling mugs, telling dramatic stories. She was friendly and accommodating to all the patrons, and he didn’t fool himself into thinking he was special among them. But so far as he knew, his was the only bed she had sat by. His was the only forehead she had fastidiously cooled. His was the only nose she had wiped dry, though that had only been one time and at the time he had been both hideously embarrassed by it and secretly pleased by the care.

He knew he was fooling himself to imagine she thought of him as anything other than a pitiful stranger full of cold and in need of some assistance. But every so often her eyes would find his across the tavern and hold his gaze. She would give him a smile that seemed somehow different from the ones she wore for the other patrons. And she would not look away until he returned her smile in kind.


Lionel sat shivering on the floor, trying to build up the fire that had gone out in the middle of the night. Having woken up sneezing, he had been too cold and too congested to fall back to sleep easily. After tossing and turning under the quilt, he had decided to get up and tend to the fire to try to get warm again. But the cold air in the room made his nose run especially badly, so he had to hold a handkerchief to his nose. This left him only one hand to try to get the fire going again, and that hand shook from cold. When he leaned in to blow on the coals to try to get a flame to rise and catch one of the logs he’d put in, ashes rose up toward his face and caused him to cough even more than was usual.

He coughed so much, he didn’t even hear the click as the door opened. He didn’t hear Bess’ approach until she was beside him. She knelt beside him, draping his quilt over his shoulders and wrapping the ends around to his front. Then she took the poker he’d been inexpertly using to shift logs around and cleared away the ash. She piled in some small twigs and sticks, fanning the coals gently every so often with the hem of her skirt. It wasn’t long at all before flames began to dance again. And once they caught hold of the two fresh logs, she sat back, pleased with her work.

“I brought you some things,” she said. For one brief, shining moment, he fully expected her to hand him the crystal shard. Of course he had never mentioned it to her. She would have no way to know he was here in her town specifically to seek it out. But he was nonetheless surprised when she produced a hat instead of a piece of crystal. In the firelight, he squinted but couldn’t get a good look at its coloring.

“It’s green and gold,” she told him, somehow knowing exactly what he wanted to know in the moment. But it was clear she did not have the same mind reading powers as the Wise Wizard. “Green like your eyes. Gold like your hair. We’ll have to see what it looks like in the daylight, of course, but I’ve seen you enough to know it’s a decent match.” She tugged it onto his head where it came down to just over the tips of his ears. He felt warmer already, from the fire, from the hat, and from her mere presence beside him.

“And there’s something else.” This time she showed him two mugs, a pouch of tea leaves, and a kettle. “I heard you coughing and thought tea might soothe your throat and help you get back to sleep.” She placed the kettle on the hook at the top of the fireplace so that it dangled just above the flames.

It would take some time for the water to heat, and he suddenly felt as confused and vulnerable as he had the first time they’d met. “You dod’t have to stay ub with be,” he said, though he had of course noticed that she had brought two mugs, not just one.

“I don’t mind.” After a short pause she continued, but in a much softer voice. “In fact, it would be my pleasure.”

Lionel didn’t see what pleasure there was to be had in sitting on the cold floor in the middle of the night beside someone with a sniffly head cold, but he did not protest any further because he preferred for her to remain. He wanted to learn so much more about her, but he couldn’t decide which questions to ask.

Just now, he didn’t get a chance to start questioning. “heh…” Feeling a sneeze coming on, he took up a handkerchief, recently cleaned and air dried on a string he’d tied across his bedposts. “heh-heh-HEH-Yihhschooo! H’schoo!” He sniffed and wiped at his nose, trying to get it under control. And failing. “heyyizshoo! Hehtschooo! HEHshoo!

He felt her hand on his arched back, rubbing small, soft circles.

“I… I’b afraid I’b dot buch sniff of a codversatiodalist todight,” he said, the last word pitching high and leading into some harsh coughs.

“Then I suppose I should speak enough for the both of us.” And that was how she ended up telling him all about herself without his even having to ask. She told him more about her family, about losing her mother at a young age, about growing up in a tavern full of colorful neighbors who became like aunts and uncles to her. She told him about her dreams, of wanting to travel, to see real magic, maybe even to one day meet the Wise Wizard because she had heard he granted wishes. Lionel decided not to ruin that dream of hers just yet. The Wise Wizard was a cranky crackpot with a single-minded obsession, not an altruistic soul. But the rumors of his kindness spread through story and song in order to help the Chosen Children accomplish their missions in his name. Lionel wondered when he would trust her enough to tell her the truth.

heyyishuhhh!” The sneeze was very nearly drowned out by the teapot’s sharp whistle.

“The tea’s ready. I’ll get it.” As Lionel snuffled into his hanky, she carefully poured the hot tea into one cup then the other. She blew a little across the surface of one to cool it then handed the cup to him before blowing on her own. Knowing it was still too hot but not caring much, he took a small sip. The warmth felt wonderful on the back of his sore throat. The mug of tea warmed him from the inside as he drank it as well as from the outside as he held with both hands.

Instead of sipping her tea, Bess stared at it, swirled it around in her cup, and breathed in the delightful steam that had a fragrance Lionel could not smell given his stuffiness. She kept her eyes on her cup as she continued talking. “I never knew my mother’s mother, but I’m told she was partial to tea. An invitation to have tea with her was, apparently, the highest honor she could grant a friend.”

Lionel tried not to read too much into the fact that she was taking tea with him right now. Did she consider him a friend? Did she have room in her life and in her heart to consider him something more?

“That souds wodder… wod… oh… ehhh! I thidk I deed to sdeeze agaid.”

He made to put down his mug so he wouldn’t spill it when the sneeze jostled him, rocking him forward and back again from its force. But, instead, she put her mug down. She wrapped an arm around him from behind and laid her hands on top of his, giving his mug and him stability.

hehh… ehhhh… Hehhh! Heh! Hehhtzchhhhhh! Heyyitchhhhh!” He sneezed freely this time, his hands trapped between the mug and hers, but she didn’t seem to mind. Not a drop of tea was spilled. And when he finished sneezing, she didn’t take her hands away. In fact, she stroked her fingers against the backs of his hands. He sniffed wetly, wanting to wipe his nose but not wanting to pull his hands away for the world. “Excuse be,” he whispered, even though it did not need to be said between them after so many days and so very many sneezes.

“You’re still sneezing a lot, but you seem better, stronger,” Bess said.

“Told you it sniff! sniff! sniff! it was just a cold.”

“Hmmm. I don’t know about that.”

“How cad I bersuade you?”

“Persuade me?” She thought for a moment. “Perhaps you can persuade me with a kiss.”

He was certain that his heart skipped a beat at those words. He flipped his hand over to take hold of hers. Bringing it up to his face, he pressed his lips gently to the back. It was the most he had ever done for someone, and even this much had his heart racing out of control.

“No, silly. Like this.” She released his hand that still gripped the mug of what was now slowly cooling tea and placed her warm hand on one of his cheeks. Her fingers stroked his short beard, which had grown longer during the days since he’d left the castle. They guided his head to the side, angled it down a few degrees, and held it in place as she moved in for the kiss.

It was a sensation like nothing he had felt before. It was warm and wet and inviting while still feeling strange, foreign, and invasive at the same time. He saw no bursts of fire, no magical explosions. But it sent tingles right through every part of him, and it felt so right. He nuzzled his head against her hand as he deepened the kiss then set down his mug in order to cup her cheek the way she was holding his.

Her soft skin against his rough hand was a delight he could not get enough of. He slid his hand down, feeling her equally tender neck and the curve of her shoulder. He wanted to explore every inch of her, but he dared go no further than this tonight.

His fingers glided over something warm and rough, and he slid them back and forth until he realized it was a chain. There was little in this world that could get him to stop kissing Bess right now, but his catlike curiosity had always been his greatest weakness. So he pulled back a moment, seeing that it was indeed a necklace. He gave it a little tug then a stronger tug, freeing it from beneath her bodice.

And there it was. A shard of crystal dangling from a simple chain. He curled his fingers around it, feeling the magic pulsing in his palm. Could she sense its magic, too? Its potential to do great things? Its call to the other missing pieces? Or had she just thought it a beautiful thing to make into a necklace?

“We have a lot to talk about,” he said before clearing his throat and trusting her with his secrets. It took all night and many sneezes to get through his whole story.