It wasn’t strange to see the young girl digging holes in the garden or rolling about in the dirt from the moment the sun was up to the moment the sun began to disappear over the horizon. It also wasn’t strange to see her climbing up the trees whose branches she could reach or splashing through puddles after a rain like the one they had had the night before.
What was strange was the sight that Caroline beheld as she opened the door to the young girl’s room and saw her still in bed, her red hair sprawled across the silken pillows she had gotten as a gift her last birthday from some distant relative. As Caroline began to call out to the young girl to ask if she were awake, she heard the weak cough from under the thick blanket that covered her.
After feeling her forehead burning and slick with sweat, Caroline rushed out to get Simon to call for a doctor. When Poppy next had the strength to open her eyes, the doctor was examining her — having pulled her body up to place his cold stethoscope upon her back, the startle of which was likely what brought her back to consciousness. She coughed loudly when he asked for her to, a rattle hitting her chest as she did so.
The doctor let out thoughtful hmm as he laid her back down, turning to her mother to tell her his findings, “It is a mild pneumonia, I’m afraid at her age it’ll be a quite difficult recovery, but she should recover nonetheless.”
Cordelia wrung her hands together, a pallid tone nearly matching her sick daughters on her face, “And how long will that recovery take? How should we take care of her?”
Doctor Thomas, who was getting on in his years and thus mostly depleted of his lifetimes worth of patience, gestured at the notepad he had been writing in with a grunt, “It’ll all be written down here, though don’t expect it to be an overnight recovery. Even when she seems better she will still need to be closely watched.” He basically shoved the notepad into Caroline’s hands without looking at her as he continued to instruct Cordelia. “No splashing in puddles, no playing in the dirt. Rule of thumb, if a child wants to do it, she should not.”
Caroline and Cordelia shared a look, both knowing the challenge that was ahead of them. What the maid didn’t know was the secret Cordelia had kept close to the chest — The limited time they had to ensure the last six years weren’t for nothing. She had only just gotten Hector to agree with her again, but it seemed where this matter was concerned it would only ever be two steps forward and one step back.
“Very good,” Cordelia dismissed the doctor with the same shortness he had granted her, “I presume we’ll be hearing from you as she recovers?”
“I’ve seen Lord Brookewood and his father both through the same affliction and thus will do so for the young miss regardless of if you request it or not. You may expect me in two days’ time and send Elias should you need me before then.” He stopped to look back at the maid, “Sit her up as she rests to help with the breathing.”
At his absence, Caroline reviewed the notes given by the good doctor, “You figure Doctor Thomas truly believes I can read?” she asked with a snort that drew out a matching one from Lady Brookewood.
“I would not be surprised if Doctor Thomas believes time stopped moving twenty years ago.”
“More like forty,” Hector’s amused voice startled them both as he knocked on the open door before stepping in. “I’ve been informed by the doctor on his way out. Nasty ailment. How is she holding up?”
“The poor dear,” Caroline said as she wiped Poppy’s forehead, “She can’t seem to stay awake.”
As Poppy laid there the word awake seemed to echo as time stretched awake…ake… wake….
“Wake up, Poppy.” The girl grumbled as she tried to open her eyes, the voice of her mother sounding more like a dream than reality.
The moon had long since risen since the last time Poppy was able to open her eyes. Her mother leaned over her, the light of the moon hitting her hair in the oddest way. To Poppy in her ill delirium her hair seemed to move like fire, the dark of the room around them a silky and multicolored oil to fuel it.
Poppy’s eyes opened and closed with the weight of her sickness, a new fever vision gracing her each time time she blinked. At some point instead of her bedroom she saw the night sky except the stars replaced with ladybugs, and then butterflies, and then fish — and then again, she was back in her room, her father leaning over her instead of her mother, and then her teddy bear, and then, and then and then —
“She can’t be moved, surely,” Cordelia said as she paced outside the room. “Oh, we should have gone days ago.”
“What’s done is done.” Hector’s voice was almost hopeful, certainly not as stressed as his wife’s. “Can we not view this as a good thing? An opportunity?”
Cordelia stopped in her tracks. Incredulous she stared at Hector for a moment as if he would take back his words, but when he did not, “An opportunity? For what? To lose everything?” Her voice cracked and she licked her lips, not wanting to look her husband in the eye, “She is ill. She is ill, Hector, and should she say the wrong thing in confusion before we can discuss the consequences with her — “
“And what consequences are worth her living her life lesser?”
“Our daughter.” Cordelia’s voice raised, and as she noticed her temper rising, she took a breath to calm herself, “Our daughter could never be lesser. If anything, those — those — pompous — “
“You know what I mean.”
She sighed. “I suppose I do.”
“If you would just tell me. If you could just… ‘consequences’ is so vague, my love.”
Standing for a moment in thought, she closed her eyes as she often did when she tried to concentrate. It was far harder here than in the wood, so less solid of a thought burning at the edge of her consciousness. It wasn’t as though she didn’t understand her husband’s reservations. “It doesn’t have to be forever,” she said as if trying to give one last argument.
“She is losing her childhood,” He replied softly. “These are the years she should be making friends, visiting others. She doesn’t leave the estate — if given the choice, she hardly leaves that damned forest,” at the words, the windows rattled lightly in offense. At one point it would have startled Hector but instead he rolled his eyes at its petulance. “She is old enough to understand.”
“Understand, yes,” she agreed, her pacing resumed, “Understand the concept but not the result. Not the weight of it.”
“And if we — “
Their conversation had drowned out the murmuring coming from the other room, the light whispering that had started as a feverish begging but had evolved into a back and forth more of curiosity.
Poppy stood in the meadow she loved so much, the wildflowers seemingly blooming twice as much than normal -- an echo of each an after image that blurred with a glow that turned her stomach. She knew she was dreaming, but she could feel the breath of the wind against her skin, the goose bumps that appeared in response.
The moon hadn’t been full, but it was now, another sign of a dream — aside from the fact the moon seemed to be slightly… pink? Or blue. Or many colors all at once, Poppy couldn’t be sure.
“Are you feeling better?” The tall man asked, his long dark hair obscuring his face in the harsh wind. His visage was almost as blurry as the flowers, but easier to make out than any of her other surroundings. His voice rang almost like harp, and for a moment she was so mesmerized by it that she forgot to answer.
“Oh, yes, thank you very much,” the words felt heavy on her tongue, as if she shouldn’t be saying them somehow. Regardless, her chest felt much lighter and so did her head, so she felt the need to thank the man regardless.
She could see the hint of a smile on his face, “A wonder that you managed to catch a sickness at all. Is that something that happens to you often?”
“Why, everyone gets sick now and then,” Poppy said as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Don’t you, mister?
His laugh was like chiming bells, “No, I do not.”
The man began to circle around her then, rather reminding her of the cats around the estate she’d seen hunting mice. He seemed amused at the girl somehow, as if he had been told a joke that she wasn’t in on. “You have your father’s eyes, I assume?”
“And clearly your mother’s hair,” he fluffed her hair lightly as he said so and Poppy reflexively ducked her head. “Her attitude as well.”
Poppy was beginning to feel as though something was wrong as he continued to watch her. “Thank you again for making me better,” her voice was meek as she looked around for the path she knew would lead to her home, “I need to go home now…”
“Certainly,” he said as if he were granting her a great gift, “May I be so lucky as to accompany you? This is a dangerous place for our little miss.”
Not used to disobeying adults, Poppy started to agree with him until the words crossing her lips began to fill her with dread. Something felt terribly wrong all of a sudden and when she hesitated to finish her sentence the look on the man’s face stopped her entirely.
“No, I have to go,” she said firmly, shaking her head to try and wake herself up and slapping her cheeks with enthusiasm for good measure.
The man seemed to growl, the noise sending a tremor of fear through the young girl, “Be off with you then. However, I will take back the bulk of my generosity, as there I have no intention of coddling the ungrateful.” With the barest wave of his hand the pain in Poppy’s chest returned — the strong gasp the sudden ailment caused had her shooting up in her bed with a muffled yell dripping with sweat.
Her parents were both standing beside her bed, her mother’s hand pressed strongly against her mouth and a look of fear that matched her own moments before plastered on both of their faces.
“Pop- …Penelope,” Cordelia’s voice was carefully crafted, all hint of any emotion that would give away her psychological state gone, “Who were you talking to just now?”
When her mother’s hand left her mouth, Poppy could feel the strangest sensation in her throat. It wasn’t pain, not like she felt everywhere else, but almost as though a hand that had been gripping it strongly had finally loosened.
It took a few tries to get the words out as her throat was dry and she had not known the feeling of speaking before, and if her parents hadn’t waited as though they fully expected an answer, she would not have tried at all.
“My uncle,” she rasped out, repeating the introduction she had been given.
later Cordelia stood outside after having ran out before allowing herself to
feel the joy of hearing her daughter’s voice for the first time since
the nightmare had started. She knew she should be elated to see Poppy healthy
before all else, but as she had regaled them with the story of her meeting her “uncle”
and how he had healed her in her dream she knew she would be unable to hide the panic in her expression.
She didn’t even need the description Poppy gave of him to know exactly who he was — to see his eyes as if he were right in front of her.
Hector joined her not long afterward, his patience with his wife nearing an end for the night. He had stayed behind to ensure that Poppy was able to get some rest, unable to explain to her the reason why Cordelia had left without a word.
“I wish you could have seen the pain in her eyes when you left,” Hector said before he could tell himself to keep his mouth shut.
Cordelia could not argue, knowing that she had made a mistake at her daughter’s expense. Perhaps this was all a mistake at her expense. “I deserve much worse,” she admitted.
“And is that what this means? That worse is on its way?” His voice had an edge of sarcasm, but the look in his wife’s eyes had him pause. “I had never heard about a brother,” he said in an attempt to probe a reaction out of her.
She covered her face, a shame bubbling up in her chest alongside the increasing feeling of regret. “Not a brother,” she admitted, “Certainly not an uncle. He is the consequence.”