The Len's Keeper woke to find that she was colder than she had ever been before. It was a burning cold, and it frightened her to the point where she did not want to open her eyes. She did not want to find that her worst fear was confirmed, for only death could bring on such a chill. She kept them closed until she heard the voices twittering over her.
"I think she's awake."
"She can't be awake, stupid. Only a kiss can make her wake."
"Well then, kiss her!"
"Not from me. Only her true love can kiss her awake."
The Len's Keeper opened her frosted eyes, and blinked against the light. When they adjusted, she saw two more pairs staring down at her.
"See?" said a chubby faced, bright cheeked girl. "She woke up on her own."
"Well that's not how it's supposed to happen," said a boy with a gap-toothed smile. "But maybe she's different."
They watched her with wide eyes, as though waiting for her to speak. The Len's Keeper tried to sit up, but pain shot through her stomach and her back, and she doubled over with a gasp.
"Oh no, it's probably not any better yet," said the girl. "You should stay lying down." She gently guided the Len's Keeper back down to her pillow, and the pain resided to a dull throb.
She realized she was in a hut or a tent or some other temporary dwelling. The walls were line with furs or carpet, but she could see the mismatched wooden panels and sheets of metal that they were composed of. She was lying on something soft and comfortable, but she still shook from the cold.
"Who are you?" said the little boy, who was tucked up into his own soft bed.
Both he and the girl were darker than any person the Len's Keeper had ever seen. They had dark hair and dark skin and dark eyes; even the coal men who worked in the bowels of the Observatory weren't as dark as they.
"Hello? Did you hear me?" said the boy.
"Do you think she can talk?" said the girl.
"Can you speak?" asked the boy, raising his voice to a shout.
The Len's Keeper opened her mouth, but she could find no words to say.
"Maybe she's just dumb," said the girl with a shrug.
"Yana!" said a stern voice, and the Len's Keeper shot up in terror, and then whimpered in pain.
A boy stood in the entrance to the hut, and older boy who shared the same dark coloring as the children. He couldn't be older than twenty, and he was broad shouldered and thick limbed, and had a mass of tangled black hair that fell just past his ears. He had a kind face made up of soft features, but it was hardened now into a scold.
"What?" said the girl Yana.
"Don't be rude. Go build a fire, I stacked some wood."
Yana slumped outside with a groan, but the boy sat up eagerly.
"Can I go too? Please, Yarrow?"
"Come here," said the older boy, and he gestured for the boy and then laid the back of his hand against his brow. "How do you feel?"
"Fine. I feel fine. Please let me go, it's not fair."
The older one, Yarrow, frowned and pursed his lips, but he sighed eventually and gave a brief nod. "Only for a few minutes, Yuli."
The boy leapt to his feet and raced out to join the girl in the yard. Yarrow watched him go, and there was a heaviness pulling on him, but when he saw her staring, he smiled.
"My brother," he explained. "He's very ill. He has the Fever. You would never be able to tell, but just last week he couldn't even sit up on his own."
The Len's Keeper had heard of the Fever, of the fiery sickness that existed beyond the Observatory's walls. It was something they didn't have there, but she knew its dangers.
Yarrow was looking away, watching the flickering flame of an oil lamp, but he turned back to her with a smile. "But you're alive, and that's a miracle. Are you feeling alight? Is there any pain?"
The Len's Keeper nodded slowly. He sat down before her and folded his legs beneath him.
"Can you show me where?" he said.
She pointed to her bandaged middle, and it was then that she realized her clothes were covered in frostbitten blood. She suddenly felt nauseous, and she blanched and turned away.
"Are you all right?" asked Yarrow.
She shook her head. "I don't…like blood." Her voice sounded very small in the tiny hut.
"Well here, take this." He slide out of a thick, animal skin coat and draped it over her. It covered her like a tent, but it was thick and warm, and it smelt of the forest, which masked the rusty scent of blood. She pulled it close to cover the red stains.
"Thank you," she said.
"You're welcome," he said. "I'll find you something to wear if I can, something warmer. I'm Yarrow, by the way." He extended his hand to her, and she took it hesitantly. "You're still very warm," he said, frowning. He leaned forward to touch her forehead as he had the boy's. "I think…I think you may be sick."
Her heat skipped a beat. The Fever. She had it. It had found her beyond the walls. She pulled the coat even tighter around her. "Am I going to die?" she said breathlessly.
Yarrow smiled, but it was a sad smile, like the one he'd given to the boy. It did not touch the warmth in his eyes. "You just need rest. Do you remember what happened to you?"
The Len's Keeper was quiet. She remembered the cold: the harsh, icy cold that was worse even than this. She remembered the voices whispering behind the door. They were speaking about her, she was sure, but she didn't remember why. When they had come out…that was when everything went dark. She looked up at the kind forest boy, and tried desperately not to cry.
"No," she said, and her voice broke. "I can't remember."
He must have seen the struggle in her eyes, for he reached over and took her cold, shaking hand in his. His hand was rough and thick with callouses, but it was warm. "It's okay," he said. "You're safe. Whoever did this to you won't find you here."
She wanted to smile, but she couldn't find the strength.
"What's your name?" said Yarrow.
She blinked. No one had ever asked her that before. "I am the Len's Keeper," she said. "I am what I do."
He frowned. "What is it you do?"
"I care for the telescopes," she said. "I polish and change the lenses."
"And you don't have a name? Do they not have names at the Observatory?"
"The Astronomers have names: Dr. Iono, Lady Umbra, Sir Bolide and…" The Len's Keeper stopped, for she remembered many voices, but only one face. She remembered her recoil in disgust at the site of the Len's Keeper, and then her look of triumph as hands had seized her.
Yarrow was watching her expectantly. "And?"
The Len's Keeper struggled to take in a breath to answer. "The Duchess of Zenith."