Not one of his lineage men dared to go near him for weeks. Melkin would vaguely perceive them sneaking in and out of the manor as he sat motionless in front of the fire wrapped in sheep skins. They had tried to talk to him about what had happened at his trial in front of the king, but Melkin couldn’t stand the sight of them. He became mad, dangerous even, and they had quickly learned to stay away from him, only casting incomprehensible glances in Melkin’s direction. A few years back Melkin would have done the same, and had done the same to his friend Gamond.
The women around the household took care of him, but it was only his daughters that made Melkin forget his grief, even if it was just for a moment. Now, Indeg would play the harp to him and he would stop thinking of how he had failed his incomparably beautiful queen’s demand that he, Melkin, must die for his crimes. There were times when Melkin had thought that having five daughters was a burden, especially economically. His grand plans of rebuilding the old Roman villa had disappeared when the twins had been born and he had felt sad to see the dream go. Now he was grateful for them. His children, his daughters, having seen depression once before in their mother, seemed to have some womanly understanding that Melkin so desperately needed.
It could have been minutes, days or weeks, Melkin didn’t really know, but a face suddenly leaned in and Melkin could hear a distant voice calling his name. It was an ugly woman, with blond stripy hair, compared to the silky dark of queen Ygraine, a woman with a crooked potato nose compared to the queen’s slender straight thing. It took Melkin a while to realise that it was his lady wife that leaned over him. She had red leaves sticking to her coat and hair, and he realised that Nest had come home from the abbey to stay. Ugly as she was, she was still a calming sight to him.
Melkin stared at her for a moment looking at her lips moving without comprehending what she was saying. Then, he pulled her close to him and whispered in her ear; two words that only she could hear.
Lady Nest looked at him with wide eyes and drew back from his touch. A minute passed as they looked at each other, then slowly, Melkin unsteadily rose from the chair. He felt the tears start down his hollow cheeks. He took one step towards his wife who stood paralysed, her eyes fixed on his face. Then, Melkin fainted.
The Hillfort cough was not a joke, not in any part of Salisbury. Melkin had had it many times as a child, but as he had grown older he seemed to have left the terrible sickness behind, for good he had hoped. Back then, Melkin remembered wheezing and gasping for air, feeling as if being on the verge of suffocating, much like he was feeling now.
High fever was making the room go round and round in circles, the sore throat made water feel and taste like fire, the pain in his lungs made him wish that he could make them stop his breathing altogether, and sleep was an endless nightmare between winter’s cold and infernal conflagration.
Around him people would cover his body with hot clammy blankets, then suddenly put ice on his forehead that made the head feel like splitting, and force bitter herbs and liquids down his pharynx until he choked. They thought him delirious. He would scream at them to stop the torments but nothing he said would change the treatments. They thought he was dying.
In fact, Melkin’s only sorrow was that he knew that the sickness wasn’t killing him. If he were to die then queen Ygraine’s wish would be fulfilled and his conscience would stop torturing him as much as the sickness was, but he knew that his body would beat the cough as it had done plenty of times before, and eventually it did.
His body fought through the sickness, the fever broke and he was left weakened, diminished and damaged by it. A ghost-like white colour covered his skin and made it look almost transparent. He had dark bluish circles around his eyes. Melkin was still healing, but even if his body was cured, his mind was still far from it.