Taking care not to fall headlong into the pool he scooped up handful after handful of clear, cold water and splashed it over his face, washing away the frustrated tears. His skin felt instantly refreshed by the icy liquid. His twisted fingers almost numb, he scooped up a few handfuls to drink. With a sigh he felt the cold water travel through him, chilling him to the core.
Common sense told him this pool was too cold to bathe in but the stench coming from his body reminded him he desperately needed to wash. From memory he recalled a shallower pool further down the mountain, fed by the stream that ran from this pool. If he could get there the water might be a few degrees warmer, more suited to bathing. It would also remove the risk of contaminating the nearest water supply to the hovel with any lingering residue of the witch’s potion.
His arthritic knees screamed painfully at him as he hauled himself to his feet with the help of the staff. In his haste to escape from the bothy he had forgotten to lift a water skin. With a resigned sigh the imp formed a simple plan. He would return to the hut, fetch two water skin, seek out the lower pool and fill the skins before bathing. If there were any clean clothes in the hut he would take these too. To his inner youthful self it sounded like a simple plan that could easily be accomplished in an hour or so; to his aged poisoned “imp” form he knew it would take considerably longer. The additional factor in this equation was the concern that there might not be enough hours of daylight left to make the short journey and he didn’t want to risk being out on the mountain side after dark. In his fever weakened state it would take the last of his remaining reserves of strength to get there and back but in his heart of hearts he knew he had no choice but to try.
Steadier now on his bare feet he made it back to the hut in good time. The air inside the room smelled fresher than when he had left. In years gone by his family had used this hut for hunting trips but it had been several years since any of them had ventured so high into the mountains. A wooden chest sat below the window. A waft of stale musty air filled his lungs as he prised open the lid. Inside there were some clean shirts and breaches. He also found two clean woollen blankets at the bottom of the box. Beside the empty fireplace there was a small cupboard. Inside he found two water skins. The stoppers for them had long since perished however the hide bags themselves looked sound. A canvas bag hung on a hook behind the door.
With the clothes and empty water skins stowed in the bag he picked up the walking stick and began the treacherous journey back down the mountain. Progress was steady while he was on the main path but as soon as he turned off onto the trail that led towards the stream he stumbled and faltered. This path was uneven and overgrown and he doubted if any human had passed this way in the last few years. Several times he had to use the stick to hold back the undergrowth and felt the trailing barbed stems tugging at his cloak, adding to the tears. After what felt like an eternity the path smoothed out and widened revealing a tranquil sunny glade surrounding a large shallow pool half shaded by overhanging branches. An old fallen tree trunk served as a bench as he sank down on to it to catch his breath.
Fumbling the pin of the silver brooch that held his cloak in place he removed the cloak and laid it across the fallen tree to air it. With the two water skins filled and their openings covered over with makeshift stoppers fashioned from leaves and grass “twine”, he slowly peeled off his stinking clothes. Seeing his poisoned naked body for the first time turned his stomach almost as much as the smell of him did. Naked he walked over to the edge of the pool, sat down then slowly lowered himself into its cool shallow waters. Try as he might he couldn’t avoiding catching sight of his reflection but with each glimpse he gradually accepted what had happened and vowed to restore himself to his true form. Using handfuls of moss that he tore roughly from the grass beside the pool, he scrubbed himself until the warty scarred wrinkled skin was red and raw. Taking a deep breath he submerged himself completely, emerging again feeling clean and somewhat refreshed.
Dressed in clean clothes he felt almost human again. Roughly he stuffed the stinking clothes into the bag, picked up the heavy water skins and headed slowly back up the hill to the hut – headed “home”. As he walked he tried to work out what he was going to do next. In his current state he was incapable of returning to the castle and confronting the witch. Top of his list of priorities was to find some food. Without a weapon and with his poor eyesight hunting was out of the question. Trapping might be an option. Fishing was another possibility.
As the sun set and dusk descended, the imp rounded the last turn in the path and the hut came into view. It was a relief to see it. Exhausted and shaking, he finally reached the front door. It was closed over. Surely it had still been open to air the place when he had left? Pushing it open he stepped inside. A fire had been lit in the hearth. A pile of logs lay beside the fireplace. On the table lay two apples, some smoked meat and a small loaf of bread, still warm. The candle had been replaced and its flame flickered in the breeze from the doorway. The hut was empty. Stepping back outside convinced his fever had returned and that this good fortune was a hallucination he looked around for a sign of his benefactor. In the failing light he couldn’t see anyone. With a smile he turned and went back inside, closing the door behind him.
From behind a tree, a few yards from the hut, a young girl watched silently. Satisfied that all was well for the evening she disappeared into the gloaming, her wings glinting in the last rays of the setting sun.