The remainder of the walk was short, the path unfurling, the stream dwindling into an icy passage as the trees opened into the village on the outskirts of Flotsam. There were men standing on the edges of the frozen water that barely trickled through the thicket beneath the watchtower, mostly human, two elves with bows strapped to their backs. All who regarded them widened their eyes, their mouths hanging agape as the elf emerged from the woods with a strange dh’oine in a tattered, bloodstained nightgown, her hair a mess of tangles and the shoes on her feet too large.
She must have looked a nightmare, but her guide didn’t pay their gaping stares any mind.
Cedric greeted them casually, withdrawing his arm but still resting his hand upon her shoulder as he announced, “The forest is safe today. The nekkers that blocked that stream are dead and you can check your traps and hunt small game without fear of attack.”
“Are you sure?” one of the men tilted a skeptical head.
“I am sure, the forest is safe.”
And then without another word he led her to a small cottage below the watchtower, showed her inside and offered her a seat at the modest table. Helti was grateful to sit down on a real stool, realizing for the first time in weeks how exhausted her body truly was. There’d been plenty of time to sit with her predicament in that cage, to feel the wear of her own body, but she’d spent much of her imprisonment shivering and thinking about death. Believing it was lurking just over her shoulder, in wait for the right moment to reach out and snatch her from the world.
For the first time in weeks, she was safe. Part of her was still having a hard time believing that. Somewhere in the back of her mind she imagined it was all part of some elaborate hoax, that he was Scoia’tael and Iorveth had designed the entire ruse to further toy with her mind. And then she felt oddly guilty for thinking that way about the seidhe who’d set her free, about the gentle way he’d kissed her one last time before he set her free.
War was cruel.
Cedric poured himself a drink, swallowed several long gulps and then ladled fish stew from the pot simmering over the fire into a wooden bowl he placed in front of her with a spoon and a chunk of warm bread with butter.
“You must be hungry,” he guessed. “How long were you out there?”
Weeks… maybe longer than a month. She couldn’t gauge time anymore. She only knew it had been close to Saovine when the Scoia’tael came, a new year bringing with it a new life–one she never would have asked for if given a choice. She’d liked her old life very much. It had been simple, not always easy, but predictable and… safe. No, safe wasn’t the right word. That life had obviously not been safe at all, considering everything that happened, but it sure had offered the illusion of safety before it all went to hell.
“Hours.” She studied the bowl in front of her, the delicious, tangy scent of it making her stomach growl and rumble inside her, but she was untrusting of its promise to nourish her. Maybe it was poisoned.“Since just after the sun rose.”
“Please eat,” he urged before sitting down on the stool across from her. Leaning back a little, he took out a pipe and began tapping the old ash out on the edge of the table, scooping it into the palm of his hand and brushing it on his leggings before he packed with fragrant, dried leaves.
Poisoned, or not, Helti ate while he packed those leaves into his pipe and took several long, slow drinks from the cup in front of him before holding a small, flaming tinder he caught from the fire to light it. The smell of smoke didn’t bother her, though it reminded her vaguely of the seidhe sitting around the fire at night, laughing, talking, smoking their pipes and longing for simpler lives where such pleasures were a common thing. Lamenting the restlessness of their lives, the war that seemed never ending.
She didn’t speak their language but for a few words, but it wasn’t necessary to be fluent in the Elder Speech to understand and recognize their lament, the longing in their voices as they reminisced and shared memories and stories of a far simpler and more beautiful time. She saw it every time she looked into Iorveth’s stare, each time she tended to his wound and endured his ridicule for not healing him well enough to leave him with both eyes.
She soon forgot her manners, eating quickly. She ate so fast she was nearly sick. Her stomach was unused to fullness, but when the bowl was empty Cedric filled it again and put it down in front of her with determination.
“You are very skinny,” he noted. “Especially for a dh’oine.”
“I have not eaten for a very long time,” she confessed.
“Hmm,” he nodded, puffing on his pipe for a few seconds, the smoke pluming around his face before rising in dwindling curls toward the roof. “You will make yourself sick if you eat too much too quickly. Slow down. Eat more bread,” he urged. “It will settle your stomach so you aren’t sick. Help you keep the food down.”
Pushing the bread toward her, she tore of a greedy chunk from the loaf and sopped the juices from her bowl into the spongy crust before feeding it between her lips. The lack of grace with which she ate was possessed by those who’ve known less than a little for far too long, and though try as she might to remain civilized, she struggled with the concept.
As she was pushing the last bite of bread between her teeth, she watched him pour another drink for himself and then one for her. It was still morning, but she was thirsty and cold, her stomach already bloated from too much food. The drink would relax her, warm the otherworldly chill from her bones and make it easier for her to tell the tale he surely wished to hear.
Cedric let her drink for a while, and when the cup was half empty, the warmth of the liquor spreading through her blood and making her face feel warm and flushed, he finally asked, “So, where did you come from, Helti?” His tone was thoughtful, the speaking of her name careful and precise, even as there was a slight slur in his voice from the drink. Gulping down several swallows, he went on to say, “You came to Lobinden seeking me by name, and yet we have never before met. I would remember a face like yours.” The barest hint of a smile curled the corners of his mouth and then he asked, “Why did you seek me?”
Iorveth told her to tell him everything that happened to her, so she cleared her throat and took another drink.
“Before the first snowfall, just around Saovine, a Scoia’tael commando came in the night and burned my village to the ground. Corvin’s Dale, it was called.” Saying the words out loud confirmed it somehow, as though a part of her had convinced herself during all that time it wasn’t true. That when all was said and done, she might make her way back to that place and resume her life as it had been. But that was stupid, and on top of feeling devastated, she now felt like a fool.
“I have heard of the place,” he nodded thoughtfully.
“They killed the men. Some of the women and children burned to death in their homes. The others they took captive. Including me.”
Cedric’s perfect forehead furrowed, his brows knitting together with unspoken dismay and deepening the scar that cut across the bridge of his nose on the right side.
“How… how did you escape?”
“I am a healer,” she paused, her mind spinning with the memory of him bursting through her door, fueled by little more than adrenaline and the fierce desire to live, “so they took me captive to tend to their commander, an elf called Iorveth…”
“I know of Iorveth,” Cedric nodded.
“He was badly wounded, his face… He lost his eye, nearly his life. I healed him.”
“I spent many weeks in their camp, a prisoner always on the verge of death. As soon as his injuries were sufficiently healed, he said they’d probably kill me, but this morning Iorveth himself led me through the woods and let me go.”
He repaid her kindness with a little love, though how much of it was love and how much something there were no words for, she couldn’t say, but she kept that to herself. Her story was humiliating enough, those details were best kept, locked away in some dark, distant place and never thought about again, certainly never spoken of.
“He showed me your tower from a distance through the trees and told me to seek you here, to tell you what happened to me. He said my healer’s skills would be more useful to the people of Lobinden and Flotsam than they were to his hanse and that you would help me…”
Cedric’s face yielded to painful emotion, but he did not put his thoughts into words for a very long time. He only stared at her, his brilliant amber eyes flitting across her face as if looking at her brought him pain.
“Of course I will help you,” he finally said. “Are you hurt?”
There were not words for what she was. Hurt seemed to indicate only physical injury, and yet the pain she felt went so much deeper than that. She was confused, devastated, empty and yet there was a strange feeling of fullness inside her. An exhausting triumph over adversity, an unexpected victory over death.
Shaking her head, she could hardly feel her toes, but there was still feeling in them. They burned inside her wet shoes, a sure sign the blood was circulating with a vengeance to return to the parts of her that hadn’t been warm in so long she forgot what it felt like.
“I still feel cold,” she confessed, “and I am very tired.”
“Of course,” he nodded. “Of course, you would be after an ordeal such as that. I offer you my bed,” he gestured toward the bed on the other side of the cottage, tucked behind a simple, folded partition, as if to provide a modicum of privacy from the rest of the small building.
The simple, straw-stuffed mattress piled with thick furs and quilted blankets beckoned her with its promise of comfort and warmth.
“Nonsense,” he shook his head. “I insist. Moril may have something you can wear, you look to be about her size, but in the meanwhile I have a spare tunic, though it will fit you like a gown, I think. It is clean. And I will bring in water to heat over the fire so you can wash. Then you should sleep. We can talk more later, when you wake, if you like.”
“I have nothing to offer. I cannot… repay you for your kindness.”
“I require no payment.”
He brought a finger out and placed it on her lips to silence her. It was a strange, familiar gesture, one she should have shied away from, and yet it comforted her.
“I require no payment.”
“That is very kind,” she murmured when he drew his hand away.
Tears burned in her eyes, brought on by relief and all the emotions she’d suppressed during her long captivity. Her shoulders began to tremble, her lower lip shaking even when she drew it between her teeth and bit down to try and stop the tears from coming.
“I cannot begin to imagine what you endured, but you are safe here now.” Cedric’s expression softened, his hand lowering to rest atop hers, which she folded in her lap. He squeezed her fingers before rising from the stool and kneeling on the floor in front of her. “Nothing will harm you here. I promise. You have my word.”
Helti nodded, the warmth slipping down her cheeks in streams. “Thank you.”