The morning after he saw visions of her unborn child, Cedric’s house guest rose early, cleared the previous night’s bottles from the table and began cleaning the dishes. The smell of cooking food, particularly the salty, savory smell of sizzling pork in the cast iron pan, woke him. She was humming, he realized, a pleasant, simple tune, and for a time he just lay there on his side, back to the shuffling movement behind him and listening to a sound some part of him knew would become cherished and familiar over time: her voice.
Cedric trembled a little, result of the nausea and headache and the distinct impression of déjà vu pressing in upon him like a heavy weight. He’d been in this scene of his life before, had witnessed that precise moment in a strange dream when he was very young. He recognized not only the song, which he could swear he’d never heard before, but the voice that hummed it. All the elements of the moment itself rushed through him like a blinding light, increasing the queasiness he felt and making him groan.
The sizzling sound and aroma of salted pork, the shuffling movement of her legs as she flitted between the pan over the fire and a small pot of boiling water in which she was cooking eggs, the hummed tune.
It was the moment he’d first glimpsed her in, the first time he’d ever seen the face of the last great love of his life.
He was about to roll onto his back and she would turn over her shoulder to look at him, a haunted, but beautiful smile twitching at the corners of her delicate mouth before she asked him if he was all right.
It was… disconcerting. She was a stranger, and yet he was meant to love her so fiercely it terrified him.
He could resist it, maybe. Refuse to follow the sequence of events and test destiny’s patience, but fate had a way with asserting itself against those who attempted to thwart it.
Without even thinking, Cedric rolled onto his back, another soft groan emerging from his throat. From the corner of his eye he saw her head turn, the loose braid of her golden hair turning over her shoulder as she glanced back at him and offered that haunted smile he knew was coming.
“Are you all right?”
So much for resistance.
“Fine, thank you.”
“I thought you might be hungry,” she went on, returning her attention to her task, “that I could return the favor of your care by making you some breakfast.”
“You didn’t have to,” he insisted, gathering himself from the floor and running long fingers through the mussed tangles of his black hair. “You are a guest, and I feel I should apologize to you for my behavior last night.”
She poured clean, boiling water into a mug of dried herbs, then set it on the table. “Perhaps I should be the one to apologize. I think I may have overstayed my welcome.” She turned back to the hearth, forking pork onto a clean plate before using a slotted wooden spoon to scoop out the boiled eggs. Lowering the plate onto the table, she went on to say, “This is your home and I’ve no right to take your bed from you.”
Gesturing toward breakfast, Cedric took it in. He stood at the edge of the stool looking between the plate and the woman who’d produced it, his head swimming with so many strange thoughts he thought he might be sick.
“Dandelion root and milk thistle tea,” she told him. “Bitter, but I sweetened it with honey and it will help clear your mind.” Helti smiled at him, though the full extent of that smile didn’t reach her eyes.
“It was kind of you to do this for me,” he began, drawing out the stool and sitting down. “But I should apologize. I drank much last night.” He was unused to having to explain himself and his drinking. Everyone in the village knew he had visions. For some it was a point of mockery, especially among the dh’oine, who thought he was just a crazy, old drunk. “I drink much every night,” an uneasy laugh scuffed through his throat. “But only because what I said to you when I came upon you in the forest was true. I really was expecting to find you there. Though not you, per se, but something, and…”
Cedric curled his fingers around the cup in front of him and stared into the dark liquid pooling within. The whirls of steam danced and writhed before him, spiraling up around his face bringing with it flashing glimpses of the coming snowstorm. It would hit Flotsam hard, burying the people inside their homes for several days. He would have to make sure he was prepared, would have to warn Moril and Seherim. Make sure he had enough provisions to see them through, as they wouldn’t be able to go outside for some time.
“How could that be?”
The sound of her voice brought him out of the vision, his head snapping up with a start as he realized it hadn’t yet started snowing. He was sitting at his own table watching steam billow from the cup he held between his hands.
“How could you be expecting me? Did he send word ahead?”
Cedric shook his head, some small part of him not wanting to taint the things he’d seen, the pieces of his future she was meant to be a part of, by burdening her with the truth about himself.
“No one told me you were coming, Helti.” He liked the way her name felt in his mouth. It was simple, but lovely, just like her. “I… I saw you once, long ago, long before you were ever even born. I have… I see things.”
“And you… saw me?”
“It was a long time ago.” He shook his head and brought the mug to his lips. The liquid was hot, bitter against his tongue and the honey did very little to disguise the taste, but he drank anyway.
He expected her to ask what he saw, but she surprised him by instead inquiring, “Is that why you drink?”
Another question he hadn’t wanted to answer, but it was only a matter of time before she asked. It was no small secret, he’d gained quite a reputation in both Flotsam and Lobinden for never knowing a single sober second on any given day, but he was not ashamed. Perhaps he should have been, but it served its purpose.
“I drink to quiet the voices in my head, to dull the impact of the visions,” he explained. “Only in that haze am I at peace. For the most part, anyway.”
“That…” She turned her head to look at him, a loose piece of her braided hair falling into her face and wavering in her exhaled breath. She reached up and tucked it away behind her ear, and then she said, “That makes me very sad.”
“I’m sorry.” He did not wish to make her sad. She had already seen so much sorrow; it was his place to show her happiness again, and he knew that would take time, but it would not do to start out by making her unhappy.
“No, don’t be sorry. It’s obviously not something you can control, the visions, I mean. The drinking can be controlled, of course, but I understand it must have its purpose. It makes me sad because no one should ever have to endure that kind of pain. It is painful, isn’t it?”
“I wish there was something I could do to heal you,” she confessed. “That is what I do. I heal people.”
“Some say I could control the visions, but I have tried and it’s no use. Perhaps I did not try hard enough. There is nothing to be done for it, and so I drink. But if it’s any consolation, I am a kind drunk,” a nervous laugh followed. “Generous, quick with a joke and a laugh. I’m never violent or angry, like some of the dh’oine in the town who drink too much and get themselves into trouble, or cause trouble for others. I’ve learned to function in that frame of mind. It’s just a part of who I am.”
“But it cannot be healthy for your body to drink so. I know the elven metabolism is slightly different from a human’s, but I’ve seen drink do wretched things to people’s bodies…”
“My body is already old,” he told her. “It has been through far worse. And besides, I have seen my own death and I know already it is not the drink that kills me.”
She gasped, her hand lifting to cover her mouth in surprise. “You… really? You’ve seen your own death?”
“Not in great detail, but I will recognize the signs when it comes for me.”
“That must be… terrifying.”
There were no words for the kinds of terrors he felt, for how alone he was. He shrugged almost casually and said, “I have accepted it.”
After a few moments, during which she didn’t seem to know what to say, she finally lowered her hand to the table. Her fingers twitched across the wood nervously. “You said you saw me? You knew I was coming?” Before he had a chance to give her an answer, she went on to say, “Iorveth, when he set me free and told me to come to this place, he said you saw things, that you would most likely be expecting me. I haven’t known many elves in my life. Is this a gift many of the seidhe possess?”
“Are you asking me if Iorveth sees visions?”
It took a moment for her to find the courage to nod.
“If he does, I have never heard tell of it. It is more likely he only told you this to goad me, that he knew you would mention it to me when we met. Perhaps he believed it would amuse me to hear he’d said that to you.”
But he was not amused. Iorveth was an arrogant bastard, who no doubt, thought he was very clever.
“Then that relieves me,” she confessed. “I don’t know how I would feel, to know he could still see me.”
“Did he…” It wasn’t his place to ask. He had no right, but there would be a child. He already knew its name. “Did he hurt you?”
“I don’t know.”
What a strange reply, Cedric thought.
“I don’t know if I can classify the things that happened to me as simple hurt, or if that even makes sense. Iorveth himself, he did very little to cause me pain directly. He said cruel things at times, but he never raised a hand to hurt me. And yet for everything I suffered, I feel he is responsible. Even worse is that…” The words trailed into silence, hovering between them for a long time before she finally shook her head. “Never mind. It isn’t important.”
Because he was a stranger. She did not want to share her burdens with a stranger, not even one who knew she was coming into his life. How quickly he’d forgotten while in conversation that they were strangers. His mind playing a cruel trick on him that would linger throughout the day, making him feel as if he knew her, when in fact, he did not. He needed to find a way to temper those strange feelings, to set them aside until the time was right to feel them, and somehow he had a feeling drink would not do it.
One day they would not be strangers, and she would share everything with him. Her sorrows, her confusion, the small, almost guilty sense of joy she’d experienced from something that should have felt wrong. But everything had purpose. One day, when they were no longer strangers, she would understand that. And together they would bear the weight of its consequences gladly.
“You don’t have to be afraid,” he finally said. “I only want to you help you, and I expect nothing in return. Perhaps the gods alone know I have plenty of sins to atone for, and in part I feel as though helping you is a step toward atonement. I don’t mind that you sleep in my bed. I rarely fall asleep there anyway, and it gives me joy to know someone’s getting use of it. There are many in this world without beds, and I waste the comfort of mine every time I pass out at the table.”
An uneasy laugh escaped her as she lowered her head, the loose, stray hairs falling into her face like a sheer curtain and hiding her eyes for a moment. “Surely there will be work for me here, people who might need a healer from time to time? Especially now that it is winter, many will suffer sickness.”
“There is no healer here in Lobinden, an herbalist, but not an actual healer. I am sure the people of our little hamlet will welcome your skills when the time comes.”
“And then I could pay you…”
“Helti, please,” he insisted. “Think nothing of repaying me. I don’t wish for you to worry about such things. I am only too glad to help you.”
Because I’ve done awful things. Because I killed so many of your people, fueled by hatred I didn’t understand, and now feel so very ashamed. Because one day I will love you and I can only arrive at that redemption by holding out my hand.
“I’ve already seen your future, remember?” He offered a coy grin, but she didn’t seem to know how to take it and he realized it was probably best not to speak of such things, not until she was ready to hear them. Maybe that would never happen, though he was fairly certain it would come in time. She was, after all, meant to be the last great love of his life, but first she needed to learn to trust again, to feel safe. “Perhaps it is my fate to help you. That is all I mean.”
“But nothing,” he shook his head. “When it arises that you have something to contribute, then we can discuss it, but for now please do not worry yourself for it. You have been through a terrible ordeal, and you are still in need of rest. All I want is for you to… heal. I’m not sure that is the right word, heal? Is it?”
Helti shrugged a shoulder toward her ear. “Maybe.”
“Once you are healed, you can heal others again. For now, just rest.”
“I’m not sure I know how.”
“You will remember. The body is a strange thing, the mind even stranger. It knows what it needs, and even if we try to deny it, it takes it anyway. You slept for many days after I found you in the woods and brought you here. Did you know that?”
“I had feeling,” she nodded. “How many days?”
Four days, during which he looked in on her. Refilled the water pitcher beside the bed, left bowls of soup that grew cold while she lay stone still beneath a pile of furs and blankets, the only movement rising with the occasion of her breath.
Neither of them said anything for a long time after that. They ate, their silence as familiar to him as her face had been, as comfortable as an old dream one crawls into bed at night hoping to reacquaint with. He wasn’t used to such elaborate meals and found himself growing full long before he’d finished half the plate. His stomach had settled somewhat, the nausea abating with its fullness, and though he was always anxious for a drink, especially having woke up with a head full of useless visions about snow, a part of him didn’t want to cloud the moment with her.
“Well, thank you for this,” he gestured to the plate as he pushed it away. “I don’t often make time for breakfast.” In fact he rarely put food in his belly before he started drinking again for the day. At times he forgot to eat entirely until Moril came bearing gifts of food and reminded him.
“It is the most important meal of the day,” she said softly. “And it was the least I could do to thank you for your kindness.”
He started to push his stool away from the table, towering over her unintentionally as he stood. For a moment he swore she looked frightened, even though it wasn’t exactly a sudden gesture, but then her face softened as she looked up at him. It was going to take a lot to win her trust, but if he’d learned anything during the vast expanse of his life it was the merits of patience.
“I have much work to attend to,” he explained. “I will be in and out through the day, but should you need anything, anything at all, you can probably find me on the platform outside the cottage.”
She nodded, but didn’t say anything else as she watched him strap on his sword belt and secure his bow across his back. He gathered his supplies, grabbed a bottle from the lower cabinet and dropped it into his bag, feeling strange and guilty as he knew she’d watched him do it. But she didn’t judge him. She didn’t click her tongue against the roof of her mouth, or turn an awkward stare on him. When he glanced back over his shoulder to say goodbye before slipping into the cold morning air, she only smiled and asked, “Is there anything I can do here? While you’re gone, I mean?”
“Keep the hearth fire burning?” he asked. “It’s always nice to come home to a warm cottage after a long day in the cold wind.”
“I can do that.”
“There are clothes for you, on the end of the trunk near the bed. My friend Moril went through her things and brought them by. I think they will fit you.”
“That was very kind of her.”
She started to smile, a beautiful glimpse that faded too quickly, but he would take what he could get while it was offered.