This is not now. The when is not immediately apparent, but it will come to him in time. For the moment, there is the field outside the cottage, and the overwhelming scent of spring flowers clustered on the hill, and the brambles of wildberries behind the building, next to the woodshed. Further back from the hill is the unbroken forest, black bent trees towering the further away they rise, knobby pines and great gray walnuts, and the occasional red flash of a hagberry. There's snow dusting his shoulders, as he turns away from the forest and back to the house. Spring, wasn't it? The flowers can tell him. Foxgloves and roses and mallows and marigolds: late spring, then, early summer. He brushes the snow off and steps inside the house.
It's dear to him, with its four ground-floor rooms and its cellar. A vivid blanket thrown over the back of the single stuffed chair reminds him of a myth he read about the Raven Queen. Scratchy dyed wool, that blanket, woven in geometric patterns that call to mind the bounty of the land in shining greens and golds and blues. On the mantle is a perfectly preserved bouquet of mallow leaves, tulips, and daffodils: white, yellow, gold. It's just before sunset, now, and the evening meal is in preparation. He can hear Eodwulf speaking from the kitchen.
"Du brauchst unbedingt Hilfe."
It smells of onions, parsnips, fresh-picked mushrooms. Dinner will be soon, he mustn't leave them on their own; he steps inside, and he is starkly conscious of his disheveled appearance, but Astrid and Eodwulf don't seem to notice. Their faces are too serious, concentrating; Astrid chopping onions up to add to the stew. Her hair is very short now, because it was getting so warm that she cut it all off. Eodwulf is vain, braided his hair and pinned it high. His face is speckled with sweat as he stirs the pot, and sighs, lifting his free hand to wipe at his brow. There is not much time, and the stew is smelling very close to done. Some spices in there, and flour made with the millet Caleb ground up earlier, to create dumplings. All of them are hungry. All of them are tired. It has been a long day, learning to prepare this dish.
"Caleb, deck den Tisch."
"Ja," he says, automatically. Sometimes he doesn't like to go along with Eodwulf's leadership, but it's easier not to fight and there's still so much to do, anyway. He goes to the cabinet in the third room, the room where lessons and food are taken in, where the cottage has its only table. It is still shining with varnish from last month, fresh and soft and smooth, fully dry now. The little imprint in its corner from his finger still stares back up, incriminating, and Caleb chews his lip to keep his focus. He should have admitted the mistake when it happened, but he had not wanted to re-do the work. Now it torments him, that little dimple in the finish. It is only a matter of time before it will be found. But that time is not now; now he has something to do. He turns to his left. The dishes are in the rosewood cabinet, and they are dusty. He brings them out, sets them down on the table. "Wo ist das Handtuch?"
"Im Keller," Astrid answers boredly.
"Ja, ja, ja. " He remembers this now: this is seventeen years ago. There isn't much time, and the bowls are so dusty. No, no, this won't do at all. Indeed, Caleb remembers everything now: that dishcloth he needs, yes, it's in the cellar, in the cellar. He rushes back outside and around the side of the house, past the stump they use to chop wood when it's the colder months. He makes a mental note of the axe, which is where it ought to be but looking rusty after the rain. Everything back here looks unused, in fact. The wildberry bushes are overgrown and unpicked, the axe is rusting. Even the cellar doors are splintering and unpainted, unprotected from the elements. Caleb crouches down, and unbolts the doors. When he stands up, he pulls them open, and shakes off that lingering sense of displacement. Time to focus.
Caleb calls an orb of bright, steady light to his shoulder. It hovers there like a guardian, just above and behind his face so it will not blind him, and as he steps down into the musty room, he scans the shelves for his target. The dishcloth is a little gray thing, hanging off the corner of the tallest shelf in the room. On his tiptoes, he can just reach it. He thinks to himself that while he's here, it would be good to grab the candied pears. Eodwulf can prepare them in a tart for dessert. That would be wise. He remembers having this idea, and that it is a good idea, and agrees with himself, pairing thought with action. When he picks up the jar in hands, his fingers look too small to him. Disconcerting. He throws the dishcloth over his shoulder, hurries up and out of the cellar. (Not too fast, of course, he closes and bolts the doors behind himself.) Some dust from the cellar sticks in his nose and his eyes water, but he doesn't quite sneeze. It's cold here in the lengthening shade, the sky all golden-rainbow with sunset. It's breathtaking.
No time for that. He rushes inside, the candied pear jar cradled in both hands. He sets it on the counter to the right of Astrid, and then darts back into the dining room. Caleb is fast, hands steady, dismisses his light, wipes down each bowl and places them carefully before each chair. Four chairs, four bowls, four places set out to exact measurements. Astrid and Eodwulf always have him set the table because his memory makes him good at it. He can be precise, he can make it look beautiful and intentional while they make food that doesn't taste like sludge. An equitable arrangement. His breath whistles in this throat, caught on some pollen or something. He clears it, looks out the window.
The last rays of day are slipping past. Buttery yellow sunlight is dappled over him and the wall behind him, dripping, almost viscous. The bowls are clean. Good, yes. He sets them down, gets out the silverware. For stew and the roast in the oven they will need plates, soup spoon, knife, fork, dessert spoon for the candied pears, cup for water, cup for wine. There's no time at all, no time, but Caleb rushes around the room as fast as his feet will take him, wiping down pieces as he goes. His heart is in his throat, painful, by the time that time is up.
The places are perfect. He tucks the cloth into the back of his waistband, stands at attention in the corner of the room, and eyes his handiwork, itching to fuss at it further but knowing that he no longer can. Astrid enters the room, carrying the roast and setting it before the head of the table. Eodwulf enters with the pot of stew, and sets it upon the stand at the center of the table.
Footsteps, soft as a spider, click over the wooden flooring in the house, and Caleb tries his best not to flinch.
Father Ikithon is there now, taking his seat at the head of the table. Caleb is to pour first, water into all the water cups. Next will be Astrid with the wine, and finally Eodwulf will have the task of serving out the stew, then the roast, and then they may finally, finally eat. Caleb's stomach is turning in anticipation. His mouth is cottony, dry. His lips feel chapped and cold.
"Es ist vielleicht zu spät," says Father Ikithon, and that's-- not what he said, not really, but Caleb is moving because it is time to do his job, and he doesn't dare question that cryptic irregularity in what otherwise is a memory running like clockwork.
He feels Father Ikithon's eyes upon him, and sees those skeletal fingers steepled patiently, and pours: first the head of the table, then Eodwulf, Astrid, himself. Caleb is biting his lip so hard it bleeds, but at the last his hands betray him, trembling a little. The water sloshes over the edge of the fourth cup, making a dark spot of moisture on the pure white tablecloth, and he feels the pit of his stomach drop out from underneath him.
Then: unfamiliar sounds and feel, smells of incense, liquor, oil, Nott's snoring across the room, his winter coat, too warm indoors, oh.
"It was a mistake," he tells himself, but he is not sure who the words are for. "Ein Fehler unsererseits, das ist alles."
Just one more thing that he will fix. Just one more.