Helti slept for days. Not continuously, but it sometimes felt that way. She woke herself in startled gasps of terror, the nightmare that had been her life and nearly her death, clinging to her awareness like the bony fingers of an old specter that refused to let go of her soul.
The dreams moved backwards through events, beginning with their bodies tangled together on the hard, frozen ground, their identities and their brief history together stripped away, along with all promises of death, and ending with the splintering shards of her shattered door bursting across the floor of her cottage while the raging fires devoured her village just beyond its gaping view.
She was frightened and confused, sometimes angry with herself for giving in freely to the touch of an elf who’d slaughtered her people without a second thought and openly loathed the very nature of her race. And yet his offer to repay her kindness with a little love seemed to make far more sense than she was prepared to admit.
In the pitch of those strange and terrifying dreams, she was convinced she’d lost her mind, that the awful experiences she’d endured had tainted her good sense.
It was the ultimate gift in some small way that made sense of the senseless.
When they lay together beneath the trees they were more than two bodies writhing in the darkness in hopes of finding pleasure together; for the briefest of moments they were two races merged, a setting aside of differences in essence of peace that could so easily be achieved when a little love was shared between them.
She gently threw back the blankets and lowered her feet to the cold floor. It was dark in the cottage, save for the dwindling hearth fire. She was cold, always cold now that she’d known how it felt to freeze, and she drew the quilted tunic, which was much too large for her, tighter to her body.
Coming around the partition that separated the sleeping area from the rest of the cottage, she caught sight of her host hunched over on the table, a tipped and empty bottle just out of reach and hovering at the edge, spilling occasional drops into a small puddle on the dirt floor.
Head buried in his folded arms, guilt immediately coursed through her. She’d taken his bed, had been sleeping in it for the gods only knew how may days, and he’d been too polite to kick her out of it, instead falling asleep at his table with his head buried in his arms.
The legendary courtesy of the elves; she’d thought such gallantries lost in a world fueled by hatred and judgment.
She hadn’t seen or spoken with him since he’d first welcomed her into his home, given her food and offered her what little comfort he had to spare, but he’d made great efforts to take care of her. Each time she woke, there was food on the bedside table, an empty cup and a pitcher of water. She would eat greedily, emptying the bowl and gulping water down until she felt sick from it, and then she would lie back down, bury herself in the blankets and sleep until she needed to relieve herself or felt hungry again.
The next time she woke there was more food on the table, more water, but no sign of the elf who lived there.
Gathering one of the blankets from the bed, she stepped carefully toward him, lowered it across his shoulders and stepped back again to look at him. The low-burning hearth cast golden shadows across the black strands of his hair, but she couldn’t see his face because it was buried in his arms. She tilted her head to study the tattoo decorating his neck, the delicate leaves ending just below his jaw. It was similar to Iorveth’s tattoo, though the leaves were larger, the ink more faded.
She surveyed the collection of bottles on the tabletop. There were three, all of them empty, and she wondered how many of them he’d drunk in one sitting. She guessed all of them. He’d been drinking the morning he found her, filling cup after cup while he listened to her story, his words of comfort slurred by liquor-plied and lazy tongue.
What kinds of horrors did one have to endure to drink so much in a single sitting? Worse was that she wondered if there were other bottles in the house so she could drown her own confusion and sorrow inside them, dull the ache of all she’d been through until it no longer felt as if it was a part of her anymore.
Instead of looking, she built up the fire again, raking the coals together, adding more kindling and logs and then standing over it as the flames warmed away an otherworldly chill she couldn’t imagine ever leaving her body again.
She stared, allowed the rising, lapping tongues to lull and hypnotize her until she could hear the cries of children, the frantic screams of women and desperate men. The thumping on the door. The Scoia’tael commander bursting through with staggered steps as he held his hand out to her and bid her come with him. Her first glimpse at his face in the firelight, hideously wounded and swollen, blood dripping down his mismatched armor…
“Are you a dryad?”
“You must sleep, Iorveth.” Soft fingertips moved through the sweat-soaked locks of his dark brown hair, traced along the curve and point of his ear before tucking the hair behind it. “You’re going to live.” She didn’t know how she could promise that, because she honestly wasn’t certain. The fever raged through him, made his teeth chatter between chills and fire, the sweat sheening on his skin as it dripped to soak the blankets beneath his body and made his hair cling to his cheek. “Don’t be afraid. I will not let you die.” She had to keep him alive. It was her duty as a healer.
“But I am ready.”
And sometimes convincing one it was not his time to die was a healer’s last trick. “No, you are not.” She had to make him want to live. “You have many, many things to do yet in this world.” Violent, terrible things with purpose she could not comprehend. Maybe she should let him die… No. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t her place to decide. She had to save him.
“Might I stay with you, here in your arms where it’s peaceful? Just a little while longer?”
“Invaernewedd!” the elf at her back shouted, throwing the blanket from his shoulders as he lifted his head. “Invaernewedd cáemm aép Lammas! She comes with the seventh savaed.” He gripped Helti’s forearm in his hand, squeezing as he stared up at her with wide, terrified amber-brown eyes, declaring, “With the harvest we shall reap the seed sown in winter’s chill.”
And then his eyes rolled until all she could see were the whites, the long, dark lashes fluttering as if he were having some kind of seizure.
Oh dear gods! That was exactly what was happening, she realized with a start.
Terrified as she was, Helti’s healer’s instincts kicked in. She quickly looped her arms around his chest, helped his seizing body to the floor and rolled him onto his side, all the while he thrashed and kicked. Leaning back, she only rested a hand on his arm and felt him tremble and jerk beneath her touch, knowing there was nothing to be done but wait it out.
There was a little boy in her village who used to have seizures. Some said he was a child of the old blood, cursed with dark visions of the future. Helti had never seen the boy speak prophecy, but she’d been called to aid him more than once after a seizure. His name had been Baeldon. She wondered what happened to him. He hadn’t been with those taken captive by the Scoia’tael. Had he died in the fires? Had the destruction haunted his innocent, young dreams?
It was several long minutes before the seizure ended, his body loosening from the tight grip of its power over him. Eyelids softening, she saw the irises beneath the heavy lids as he blinked and stretched his hand out toward her. His pupils were so large it terrified her.
He rested his clammy hand on her thigh and whispered, “Thirsty. I’m so thirsty.”
“I cannot help but wonder if you’ve already had more than enough to drink.”
Those fingers curled against her thigh, clutching the loose fabric of the tunic he’d given her to wear. “Water.”
“Of course,” she agreed, withdrawing, watching as his hand fell to the floor.
She found the water pitcher, filled a cup and then knelt to grab the blanket he’d thrown off in his strange fit. She folded the blanket, tucked it beneath his head then helped him sip from the cup. She watched rivulets of water trickle from his lips and slip down his cheek before disappearing into his hair.
“You’re very sick. I’ve no right to take your bed from you. When you are able, I will help you into it so you can rest in comfort.”
“No,” he insisted. “I am fine where I am.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I am a guest in your home and I will not take your bed from you anymore.”
“Please,” he was touching her again, a weak hand lifting to rest atop her arm. “Please, I am fine right here. I’m cold though.”
“I will get you another blanket.”
“Thank you,” he muttered, turning his head downward and closing his eyes. Helti walked back to the bed and pulled the quilt from the mattress. Returning to where he lay, she spread it out over him and knelt beside him again to tuck it in around his body to keep him warm. “You warmed the fire.”
“It had gone cold.”
“I’m sorry. I meant to tend it…”
“Shh, hush now. You should rest.”
He only nodded, his eyes briefly opening and turning upward to look at her. “I saw her. She will be beautiful and strong, but great sorrow will fill her. She will spend the sum of her days not knowing who she is or where she is supposed to stand. We will help her,” he said. “Together we will help her, you and I, but I fear it will not be enough. I won’t always be there for her because my time will come…”
She wasn’t sure if he was seeing visions, or if the vodka twisted his thoughts into senseless ramblings he wouldn’t remember come morning. While he’d been pointing her toward Lobinden before they parted ways, Iorveth told her some believed Cedric had visions. He’d even offered the barest smile as he said, “No doubt he will know you’re coming.”
She wondered at the time what that meant, why he’d sent her to find this Cedric who had visions.
She withdrew her hand from his shoulder and rocked back on her heels before dropping onto her backside on the floor. She sat beside him long after he fell asleep, his breath slowing, the tension melting away from his delicate, yet masculine features. She wondered how he’d come by the scar carved deep beside the bridge of his nose, how long an elf had to live, how much sorrow one needed to endure to develop the subtle laugh lines etched beside the corners of his eyes.
In sleep he appeared ageless, nearly as innocent as a child, but she knew better. Some elves lived several hundred years, or at least they used to. Now she didn’t think many of them lived even half that long anymore. They were busy getting themselves killed over causes that, despite the severity of their importance, didn’t seem worth the sacrifice in the end.
But what did she know? She was just a dh’oine, and before she’d been taken prisoner by the Scoia’tael, her only interactions with elves had been the very rare and occasional traveler passing through the village on the way to somewhere more important.
Releasing a long sigh, she brought her hand into the loose tangles of her hair, drew it back from her face and held it there as her cheeks deflated with that breath.
She had no idea what she was doing there. What was to become of her now that she had nothing left to lose? She supposed she had no choice but to stay the course and see what life handed her next. She only hoped, whatever it was, she was strong enough to handle it. Then again, she had stood face to face with death—and then she’d made love with it.
How much worse could it possibly be?