After he’d gone, Helti went to find the clothes on top of the chest in front of the bed. It was a simple dress, thick-spun, woolen fabric dyed dark blue, though it had faded with many washes. There was a small tear in one of the sleeves, she noticed, but it would be warm. Drawing the tunic he’d lent her up over her head, static crackled in her dry hair and made the hairs on her arms rise. She folded it neatly and slipped into the dress, tightening it around the waist with the belt and then stepping back to look down over herself.
It seemed so long since she’d worn real clothes. She almost forgot what it felt like to be wrapped in soft, woolen warmth. Her feet were cold, absent stockings and shoes, but when she looked for the shoes she’d been wearing when she came to Lobinden, they were nowhere to be found. Neither was her tattered, blood-stained sleeping gown. She searched the cottage, determining her host must have gotten rid of them in an effort to keep her from further bad memory.
It was a kind gesture, but surely he knew disposing of the clothes she’d worn during the worst weeks of her life wouldn’t make the memories of that time disappear.
And she had nothing to wear on her feet, which were cold and bare against the dirt floor. She opened the trunk at the end of the bed and scanned the contents guiltily. She had no right to sort through his things, it might even make him angry enough to reconsider his offer for her to stay in his home, but she knelt down and began sifting through the items inside. It was clothing, mostly, a few books, a carefully wrapped elven shortsword, which she laid on the ground beside her before leaning deeper into the trunk. She finally found what she was looking for, an old pair of thick, woolen socks near the bottom, and then she dropped down to slide them over her feet.
They were loose, and just a little too big. It looked ridiculous, but she didn’t really care. Those old socks were warm and comfortable, and she was grateful to have found them. Replacing everything back into the trunk, she returned the tunic he’d lent her as well, then closed it up and stood. Amazing how much difference a simple pair of socks lent to a person’s outlook.
Hands perched on her hips, she surveyed her surroundings. The cottage, which had obviously been dwelt in for far too long by a man who didn’t spend much time there, could certainly use a good cleaning. Cleaning always kept her mind off other things, things she didn’t want to think about. After she washed up the dishes, she could dust a little, maybe, sweep the floor. She knew such tasks only distracted the mind for so long, for they were finished soon enough and then she would have nothing left to do but think.
She threw herself into work, scrubbing pots and pans, hanging them from the wall rack near the heart. She found an old feather duster, which she swept along the surfaces, gathering cobwebs and dust bunnies, and then she took the broom to gather everything so she could sweep it out the door and let the air carry it away.
Somewhere outside the walls, she heard children calling out to each other, a peaceful, familiar sound that made her almost forget where she was, what had happened to her. For a moment she almost tricked herself into believing she was in her own cottage in Corvin’s Dale, that it was only a matter of minutes before Greta, who was heavy with her first child, came knocking on her door, asking if there was anything Helti could give her that would bring on labor. She was tired of carrying the baby, wanted to get it out of her…
Greta had not been captured by the Scoia’tael either, and Helti wondered what happened to her. She didn’t know what day it was, but Yuletide was surely coming. Greta’s baby would have already come, she realized… if Greta had lived.
So many of those she’d called friends were lost, even those who’d been taken with her, the women and children who survived the fire only to be captured and shoved into that small cage in the forest… She had no idea what became of any of them, but she feared the worst. Everyone she’d ever known was gone, lost to her forever.
Still holding the old broom in her hand, she dropped down onto the edge of the bed and just stared at the wall until her sight grew blurry with tears. She tried to fight them, some part of her still believing she had to be strong, but she was so tired of being strong. She wanted her life back, the peaceful simplicity of it, the stable predictability and comfort of old, familiar faces, but all of those things were gone, and now she didn’t even have a decent pair of stockings or shoes to keep her feet warm. No home to call her own.
And worse was the guilt she now felt because she’d nearly gone with the elves who’d slaughtered her people. Before parting ways with Iorveth, she’d offered to come with them, to lend her skills as a healer because she did not know what else to do, where else to go. Her captors had become the only familiar point in her life and without them, what did she have left?
The tears had already started to spill down her face when the door leading outside opened. She glanced up, quickly swiping the dampness from her cheeks and expecting Cedric, but it wasn’t her host who leaned inside and called out, “Ceádmil ?” in an uncertain voice. “Hello?”
She didn’t realize she was still holding the broom when she came out from behind the partition. “Hello.”
“Ah, that dress fits you perfectly,” the woman beamed, coming inside and closing the door to block out the cold air. “Cedric said you were about my size, and he was right. He has a good eye for things like that, but then you’d have to in order to craft armor and the like, I guess. Oh, silly me,” she shook her head and drew down the scarf she wore over her hair. “Here I am babbling as if we’re already old friends, and I haven’t even introduced myself. I’m Moril, and you must be Helti.”
She nodded, realizing her cheeks felt stiff and dry from the tears she’d hastily swept away. “Thank you for the dress.”
“Of course, you’re welcome. I tried to find a decent pair of stockings to add, but they were all riddled with holes, and it seemed a silly thing to give them away without mending them first. I could knit you a pair if you’d like. I’ve plenty of yarn. Unless you knit yourself, in which case I’ll get on Cedric about procuring some yarn from the vendor in Flotsam…”
“I never learned to knit.”
“Oh, well, I could show you sometime if you’d like. It’s a useful skill.”
What a strange woman, Helti thought. Before she even had a chance to answer, Moril was already talking again, explaining, “With these long winter days, there isn’t much else to do in the evenings but spin and knit. You’ll see, and once you learn you’ll be glad you did because it will give you something to do.” And then she laughed, a light and beautiful sound that made her seem so incredibly majestic, Helti didn’t know what to think at all.
“I wasn’t sure if you’d be resting or not. Cedric said I shouldn’t bother you, that you’d been sleeping a lot and probably weren’t ready for guests, but he doesn’t understand women,” she grinned. “You’d think for one of his age he’d know everything there is to know about us, but he’s just as clueless as the rest of them. Women need other women, especially when they’ve been through a tragedy.”
“He… he told you…?”
“Just a little, he told me your village was razed…” Shaking her head, the bubbly lightness quickly disappeared and she grew instantly sad. “Damn the Scoia’tael. They think they’re fighting for justice, but it’s too late for that, and they just make everything worse for us all.” After a moment, as if in silent respect, she added, “I’m so terribly sorry for the things you went through, Helti. No one should ever have to endure such things.”
“No,” she agreed in a distant voice that didn’t sound quite like her own. “They shouldn’t.”
“And I hope you know that we are not all like that,” she went on after a time. “Not all the Aen Seidhe feel the way the Scoia’tael do. There are those of us, like Cedric, Seherim and me, who believe there is another way…”
“Is that why Cedric left?” she asked. “The Scoia’tael, I mean?”
Moril nodded, “One of many reasons. He was tired of giving into the hatred, the helplessness it bred. He has seen many things, says he even remembers when the dh’oine were so few one could go months on end without even seeing one in their travels through the woods, but I don’t know if I believe him.”
“How old is he?”
“That’s the funny thing, isn’t it? I’ve known him for almost twenty-five years, and I still don’t know the answer. He never says, only that he’s old enough to remember when the world was a peaceful place, and I suppose it’s impolite to ask him to clarify exactly when that was because no one else can remember such a time,” she tittered, a happy sound that brought a smile to Helti’s lips. “But in truth, you couldn’t have been rescued by a nicer seidhe. It’s just his nature. He will look after you as long as you let him, though I suspect he needs a little looking after himself too. He forgets to eat sometimes, and I know he drinks a bit, well, a lot really, but…”
“He drinks to quiet the voices in his head,” Helti finished for her.
“Precisely,” she perked up. “Not the most productive compromise, I suppose, but he functions well despite it. He’s still quick with a sword, even quicker with his bow, and he really is one of the most pleasant drunks I’ve ever known. Though he can, at times, be a little on the sarcastic side. Like he’s the only one that knows some secret the rest of us are just skirting.”
Helti apparently hadn’t met this sarcastic side of him yet. She wondered if she would.
“I feel as though I’ve been impolite,” Helti noted, leaning the broom against the wall beside her. “Would you like a cup of tea, Moril?”
“I think I would, yes. Yes, please.”
She unwound the scarf from her neck, hung it on a peg beside the door and then stripped off the fur she wore warm herself against the wind, and then the two of them sat down at the small table near the hearth and had tea. Helti didn’t know how long they talked, but several hours passed before Cedric ducked through the door, exposing the purple glow of dusk beyond it before he wrenched it closed behind him.
He was surprised to see the two of them still sitting at the table, chatting like old friends who’d known one another since the dawn of time. Helti liked Moril, a great deal, and the woman had been right: women needed other women, especially after enduring such hardships.
She listened, did not ask for more than Helti was willing to give her, but by the time Cedric came inside Helti knew that given more time with her new friend, she would most likely tell Moril everything just to get it off her chest. The confusion she’d felt there at the end, the pleasantness of a touch that shouldn’t feel right or good at all, the odd longing she’d experienced to follow after him even though there was no place for her in his life.
“Moril,” Cedric grinned, a slight stagger to his step as turned back into the cottage to face them. “Seherim is preparing to put together a search party to hunt you down. When you didn’t bring him soup this afternoon, he grew certain you’d been abducted, or that you ventured too close to the river and the Old Man gobbled you up.”
Moril rolled large, hazel eyes toward the ceiling as she dropped her head along her shoulders. “He’s like a child at times. What would he do if I left him on his own for more than a couple of hours? Starve, I suppose.”
“Who is the Old Man?”
“The river monster,” Moril explained. “Some nasty, tentacled beast that occasionally makes an appearance to nab fisherman for an early morning snack.”
“It’s a kayran,” Cedric explained, “and a kayran is no laughing matter, Moril.” His scolding came tempered with a mischievous grin. “It’s a dangerous creature, and it’s nabbed many a good man since it arrived in our waters.”
“Then Loredo needs to bring in a professional to do away with it.”
“You know as well as I do he won’t cough up the coin for that, the greedy blighter.”
“And on that note, I should be going before Seherim loses his head and ventures too close to the river calling out my name and rousing the Old Man from his winter slumber.”
“Do you have enough supplies for a few long days?” he asked when she rose from the table and reached for her fur and scarf. “A storm is coming.”
“Our stores are well-stocked, thank you.”
“It will begin before morning, so make sure you have enough wood.”
“We will. Helti, thank you for the tea and the company. I will come after the storm abates and bring my needles so I can teach you to knit.”
“Thank you for the visit, Moril.”
The unexpected visit had cheered her up more than she could have ever guessed it would, and for a few hours she wasn’t focused on the darkness and despair of all she’d been through. She’d laughed a little bit, shared stories and felt a small glimmer of hope at the prospect of making a new friend.
“And thank you again for the dress.”
“You’re welcome. Va faill,” she said, and then she disappeared through the door, another cold gust of air sweeping through the cottage as she battled against the rising wind to try and close it. Cedric turned back, gripping the handle in his hands and pulling it closed with a heavy thunk before spinning back in to face the room again.
“I do hope she wasn’t bothering you,” he said. “I begged her not to, but you can see her hearing is quite obviously impaired. No one governs over Moril. She does as she pleases.”
“She wasn’t bothering me, no. In fact, I am glad to have met her. She is very nice, and it was good to have someone to talk to. Her company distracted my mind from things that might have otherwise overwhelmed it.”
“Well, in that case, I’m glad she is hearing impaired,” he laughed. “Did you rest much today?” Looking around the house, the dust-free shelves and the tidy floor, he returned his gaze to her and shook his head. “I suppose not. My cottage hasn’t been this clean in… well, perhaps never.”
“I mostly tried to keep myself busy. Do you mind that I tidied up?”
“No, of course not, but you are a guest. Guests should not have to do the tidying up. As I’m sure you guessed, however, I haven’t had guests in a very long time, and I didn’t tidy up very well before you arrived. You must think me a terrible lazybones.”
“Of course not. I hadn’t even considered it. And as I said, it did give me something to do, kept my mind from other things I’d much rather not dwell on.”
“For that then, I am glad.” He unstrapped his belt and removed his bow, hanging both on a hook near the door, then he walked over to the cabinet and took down a bottle. Pouring himself a drink and taking several swallows before he returned the cap to the bottle and turned toward her again, he joined her at the table with an exhausted sigh.
“You said there is a storm coming.”
“A very big storm.” He blew the black plait of his hair off his cheek when he exhaled again. “It will arrive in the night and snow for so long we are all like to be trapped inside our homes for many days to come.”
“Is there anything I can do to help you prepare?”
“I think we are well prepared for it. The larders are stocked, there is wood for the hearth. I need only bring it in from outdoors and stack it in the corner so we don’t have to go outside.”
“Are you very hungry? Can I make something to eat while you do that?”
“You don’t have to do th…”
“If I said it would make me happy to do it, would that be all right? I am a little hungry too, and it is only fair I earn my keep.”
“I’ve already said you need not earn your keep, but if it would make you happy, then yes, please, make us both something to eat.”