“How can you be sure she tells the truth?” Seherim lifted a hand to his cheek, scratching the skin just beneath the patch that covered his eye. “Iorveth is not exactly famous for just setting captured dh’oine free. They are at war out there, Cedric. Do you know how ridiculous that sounds?”
Taking a long drink from the flask, Cedric lowered it to his hip and lifted the spyglass back to his eye. “She says she saved his life. If what she says is true, and she did indeed keep him alive, perhaps he felt indebted to her. Letting her go would be the honorable thing to do.”
“A dh’oine?” Seherim scoffed. “He wouldn’t lower himself, even if she did save his life. In any case, I still don’t understand why he would send her to you, specifically. It’s not as if the two of you are friends, or even enemies.”
“To mock me, perhaps?” he shrugged his shoulder. “It is no secret the things the Scoia’tael say about me. They think me soft in the head, a drunkard and a fool who loves the dh’oine simply because I’ve come to the realization that such senseless acts of violence solve nothing. That in order to achieve the peace we continually seek, we all must work together. Aen Seidhe, dh’oine, halflings, dwarves…”
“If only the dh’oine agreed with your philosophy and put it into practice,” Seherim sighed. “It is a losing battle, Cedric, and maybe Iorveth is right to keep fighting it. Maybe a good fight will finally bring us true peace. Maybe in the end we can return to Dol Blathanna…”
“Iorveth’s way is not the way. He continues to spout propaganda for freedom, inspiring our young to take up the fight against oppression, knowing full well that every time one of them dies by the blade or dangling from a noose, we crawl that much closer to extinction. And Dol Blathanna is not salvation, as sweet as that dream may be. They will see… Everyone will see when Enid an Gleanna becomes the puppet queen of the North.”
“They have to start winning sometime,” Seherim sighed and avoided his comment about the elven sorceress. “So what will you do with her? The dh’oine, I mean?”
“Do with her?” Cedric asked, shaking his head and dropping the spyglass at his side to turn a curious eye on his friend. “I won’t do anything with her. She is free to do as she pleases. I will be a friend to her, as she is desperately in need of one, offer her a place in my home as long as she requires, share my rations with her and…”
“I caught a glimpse of her when you were leading her out of the woods. She’s not unattractive, for a dh’oine.” There was a measure of distaste in his mouth when he said this. “I imagine she would clean up nicely.”
She had, Cedric thought. Awash of weeks of dirt, grime and the blood of elves she’d tried to save in an effort to keep herself alive, she was quite beautiful, but then he knew she would be. He may not have known what he would find in the woods that morning, but he had glimpsed her in a dream many, many years earlier. A fraction of an image, the flash of her face and the tightening of his heart as he realized what that face would mean when he saw it for the first time.
“Whatever you do, just don’t fall in love with her,” Seherim warned, as if he’d somehow intuited Cedric’s inner-most emotions and sought to chastise him for them.
“What a silly thing to say, Seherim.” Though that statement felt like a fist clenching inside his gut, as though someone had set free a bag full of butterflies inside him. He didn’t know her, and yet he knew one day he’d love her. It made him feel oddly attached to her—a stranger… a dh’oine.
“I know you are lonely, and it’s been a while since you had a woman in your arms, but the last thing an old elf like you needs is a young, dh’oine lover. The men of Flotsam already think themselves entitled to our women. Imagine how outraged they would be if one of us were to carry on with one of theirs.”
“Just because your own head is filled with naught but poetry and song for the fair Moril, you think everyone’s hearts are so easily stirred. I’ve no intention of falling in love with anyone,” he laughed, almost nervously, and took another drink. “I am old, as you so aptly put it. My own heart is not so quick to ignite these days, and besides, I don’t even know her. I’m simply doing what any kindhearted person should do, holding a hand out to someone in desperate need.”
“Well don’t lose your head,” Seherim said, “or your hand. You do drink an awful lot at times, forget what’s up and where’s down…”
“And you know why,” he pointed out. “It quiets my mind.”
“And dulls your senses.”
“That too.” The barest hint of a grin twitched at the edges of his shapely mouth, but he was grateful when Moril appeared at the edge of the platform, searching for her love.
“You are always bothering Cedric and keeping him from his work, Seherim,” she scolded. “He has traps to build, woods to keep safe, and you have work of your own that’s not going to do itself.”
“Yes, my dearest.” He swelled his chest with a deep, contented breath.
“Cedric what is this I’ve heard from Onrietta? You found a woman out wandering in our woods this morning?”
“Word does spread quickly,” he sighed.
“He did, indeed,” Seherim proclaimed before he could form a more elaborate answer, “a dh’oine woman, but I will let him tell you all about his little adventure with the nekkers and the dh’oine. I, as you’ve so astutely reminded me, have work to do. I will speak with you later, old friend.”
“Va faill, Seherim.”
Cedric and Moril both watched as he descended the watchtower ladder, the young elven woman shifting her golden hair over her shoulder before she turned around to study him. “It is true then? You found a dh’oine woman not from this wretched place wandering through the woods?”
“Yes.” He turned from her intensive stare, back toward the woods and lifted the spyglass to scan through them again for signs of trouble beyond the village. “She nearly walked right into my nekker traps, said she’d been lost for hours out there, trying to make her way toward Lobinden.”
“Why would anyone want to come to Lobinden on purpose? Where did she come from?”
“I don’t know, but her village was laid to waste by Scoia’tael fires before first snowfall. Iorveth and his hanse.”
“Poor creature,” she lamented, her stare looming over his shoulder.
“She says Iorveth was badly wounded and they kept her prisoner so she could heal his wounds. In the end, it was he who set her free. He sent her here to Lobinden with my name on her lips, told her I would help her.”
“That is rather strange, isn’t it?”
“Indeed,” he nodded, “but do you want to hear the strangest thing of all, Moril? And please don’t mention it to Seherim, but I dreamed of her, this dh’oine. Long ago I saw her face in a vision and this morning when I opened my eyes, before I could quiet them with drink, the voices told me I would find something today I didn’t even know I had been looking for.”
For a long time Moril was silent, but she did not need to speak. It disturbed her when he spoke of visions and voices, almost as much as it disturbed him. Without looking toward her, he held the flask from which he’d been sipping since he’d climbed the platform. She took it, tipped it toward her lips and he heard her drink.
“You are right not to tell Seherim you saw this dh’oine in one of your visions before you met her,” she said when she finished.
“I’m no fool. Already he mocks me for taking her in. He told me not to fall in love with her, as if I have a choice in the matter. He said the dh’oine would surely raise their arms in outrage if one of us were to find ourselves entangled in the embraces of one of the women they seem to hold in such low regard.”
“He speaks true. The dh’oine are greedy with their women. Even though they do not want them, they don’t want anyone else to have them either. Still, Seherim thinks he knows best. He’s only looking out for you in that way of his.” A long breath escaped her, the silver puff of it streaming past his shoulder. “You should never have told him you saw glimpses of your own death. He does not know how to take such things.”
“Neither do I,” he sighed.
“They baffle him and so he mocks them.”
“You’re right,” he agreed, “perhaps I shouldn’t have told him, but sometimes I cannot live with all of this alone. There are times the sharing of it alleviates the burden.”
“And other times it becomes more the burden because those you share it with do not understand you, Cedric. Seherim does not possess the wisdom and worldliness you do. He has not seen much in the way of darkness. He wants to understand, but I don’t think he ever will.”
“And you?” She tilted the flask between her lips and took another drink, this one longer. “Do you understand, Moril?”
“I may not understand, but I do sympathize with you. I know the things you see are very real, and it terrifies me. It also brings me deep sadness to know how much you suffer from them.”
“You are a good friend to me.”
“As you are to me,” she tucked the flask back into the sling at his hip. “Your friend from the forest, what is she called?”
“And she is a healer?”
“We could use a healer in Lobinden, once she’s had time to come to terms with her situation. In the meantime, if she needs anything, say the word and I will give it freely.”
“She could use some clothing. It’s a small wonder she did not freeze to death out there. She came here in little more than a blood-stained sleeping gown torn to rags and a pair of boots that barely fit her. I burned them both after she went to sleep to rid her of the memories, but for now she has nothing else to wear save for one of my old tunics.”
He squinted through the glass, staring at a shadow drifting through the distant trees until it came into full view. A stag, its broad rack of antlers blending in among the low-hanging branches of the trees. It dipped its head down, sniffing through the frost-laden grasses as it sauntered almost lazily. He itched to reach for his bow, knew that he could sink an arrow into its heart even at that distance, but they were not to hunt in the king’s wood without a permit, and besides, then he would have to venture into the woods to track it, and drink made him feel lazy.
“I will go through my trunk and see what I can spare, bring it by your cottage later so you can introduce me to her.”
“That is very kind of you, Moril, but maybe we should let a few days pass before introductions are made. She has endured much…”
“Of course, you’re right. I will bring what I can find and leave them with you.”
“You are good to me, sor’ca.”
“Someone must be better to you than you are to yourself.”
She stood at his back for a long time, watching the quiet woods over his shoulder until small flakes of snow began to drift on the slow wind, and then she patted his back before turning away and leaving him to his self-appointed task to guard the forest.
Elder Speech used in this chapter:
sor’ca: little sister
Enid an Gleanna: Daisy of the Valley
Dol Blathanna: Valley of Flowers