The wind howled outside the cottage, rattling the glass in the windows while the two of them sat down to a quiet supper. He wanted to talk to her, there were so many things he wanted to ask her about her life, but he didn’t know where to start. So while he ate in that strange, normal way other people often sat down to eat together, he found himself dwelling on how natural it felt to just sit there with her, as if she had always been there even though he knew she hadn’t and it surely didn’t feel that way to her at all.
What had her life been like before the Scoia’tael ruined it? How did she spend her days? Had she ever been in love? Did she have a family? Had she lost people she cared for?
Her silence was preoccupied, and he wondered what kinds of things she thought about while she absently chewed bites of cod and stared down at her plate. She was quiet for so long it surprised him when she cleared her throat, took a drink of wine and said, “Moril told me you are very old.”
“At least she is honest,” he nodded with a soft chuckle.
“How old is very old to the Aen Seidhe? For a human, very old is sixty, maybe seventy years, but Moril said she’s known you for nearly twenty-five years and yet neither of you look a day over thirty, really. I know some elves live for a very long time, but how long is a long time?”
“Hundreds of years.”
Cedric reached for his drink, washing down another bite of food as he swallowed. “Many,” he confirmed.
“She says it’s impolite to ask…”
He shrugged a shoulder, “No more impolite than my refusal to answer, but the truth is I no longer count the years, and so I could not accurately tell you. It could have been four hundred years, maybe five hundred by now.” Her eyes widened as she tried to imagine a life so long. “It doesn’t feel important and has not for a very long time. I believe it is equally ill-mannered to ask a woman her age, so I will not ask you how old you are.”
“I don’t mind. I am twenty-seven,” she grinned across the table at him, a much lighter smile than the one she’d offered him earlier that morning. “I was starting to feel old, actually. I was the only woman in Corvin’s Dale over the age of nineteen who was without a husband or children. Some of the kids had even taken to calling me an old witch.”
Talking about her village dulled the shine in her eyes and she lowered her head again, staring at the plate of food in front of her.
“I have met old witches,” he told her with thoughtful authority. “They do not look the way you do at all, so I think you are safe from that stigma, at least for now, anyway. Who knows, perhaps one day if you aspire…”
“I am not a witch,” she insisted almost defensively, as if she expected persecution. “I do not practice magic beyond the healing arts.”
“Even if you were a witch, your secret would be safe with me. Where did you learn the healing arts?”
“My grandmother was a healer,” she explained. “A right old witch, if ever there was one. She used to buy warts for a copper coin, kept them in a jar on the shelf in her cabin. Sometimes she would stir them into her cauldron with bat’s blood, coarsely chopped nekker hearts, powdered dragon scale and eye of newt. She said it was a curse she was brewing, but who she cast it on, I don’t know. I was never brave enough to ask her.”
“Was she a sorceress?”
“Not in such an official capacity, no. She was just born with certain gifts, like her grandmother before her.”
“And she taught you?”
“She said I was born with the gift, with a healer’s hands, just as she was and it would be a waste not to learn the art. My mother sent me to live with her in the woods outside of Corvin’s Dale when I was eleven years old and she taught me everything I know. After she died, I took her place as the village healer. Delivering babies, preventing them from being conceived, treating coughs and wounds…”
“You must know much about alchemy and potions.”
“Among other things, yes.”
“One of the children in the village, she succumbs to awful earaches in the winter. Her father said she was awake all night crying from the pain.”
“It is probably her sinuses,” she told him. “Sometimes a simple cold can lead to fluid in a child’s ear that causes painful infection, especially during these months when sickness is so prevalent. There is a potion that can be made from an infusion of verbascum flowers and garlic boiled down in oil. A few drops in the ear helps relieve the pain and clear infection.”
“Perhaps you could make some and after the storm passes I could take it to him.”
“I would be happy to if I could find verbascum. It grew all over in Corvin’s Dale, but I’m not sure about here, and with the cold weather it would probably be difficult to find.”
“Anezka, the herbalist I told you about before, may have some.”
“If so, I would gladly make the potion.”
“After the storm passes, I will ask her,” he decided. “Would you tell me more about Corvin’s Dale? What was it like?”
“Peaceful,” she shrugged, the distance returning to her eyes and her voice again when she went on. “Quiet and small, nestled snug along the river. It was filled with fisherman and farmers, mostly. Everyone knew everyone else, all joys and sorrows were shared.”
“It sounds like it was a beautiful place,” he lamented.
“It was,” she sighed. “Now I don’t know where any of my people are. Many of them died, and those taken captive, like me… I just don’t know.” Her sorrow reached him, curled like fingers around his heart and squeezed. “Another unit of Scoia’tael just showed up one day and took them all away in boats while I was tending to Iorveth’s wounds. At the end of the day they pushed me back into an empty cage with no explanation. I have no idea where they were taken.”
“Sold into slavery, most likely.” It was a cruel thing to say, even if it was true. He immediately felt insensitive, insecure about having hurt her feelings and he fumbled for the right thing to say. He failed miserably. “It is illegal, of course, which makes the transactions between traders and slave-masters all the more lucrative. The Scoia’tael have to fund their endless battle somehow, and I’m afraid few of them think much beyond the exchanging of coin for a few dh’oine women and children.”
“That is awful.”
Cedric nodded and took another drink, mumbling into his cup, “Awful does not seem a strong enough word, if you ask me. No one should be enslaved, forced to live a life they did not choose for themselves.”
“And yet so many of us have no choices at all.”
“That is the saddest truth of all, I think,” he agreed. “And though it may seem harsh to set thoughts of those you cared for aside, you have choices, Helti. You are free, not a slave.”
“But I feel like one in some ways. A slave to circumstance, perhaps.”
“Circumstances could be worse.”
He finished what was left in his cup and proceeded to fill it once more, sloshing a bit of precious liquid onto the table as his hands shook. Helti watched him, her dark brown eyes lingering on his shaking hand until she realized he noticed her watching him, then she turned her gaze toward the window at his back.
“The wind sounds angry.”
“And perhaps it is, but we are safe from its tirade, inside and warm by the fire. Do you like music?”
“Then I will play us a song,” he decided, pushing his plate away from him. “Maybe it will dull the howling of the angry wind in our ears.”
He took out his flute and for a time filled the small cottage with a haunted melody that drew her farther away, and yet pulled her in. She was captivated, nearly spellbound by the song. Cedric himself was lost in its beauty, carried off to some distant, peaceful place where no such sorrows plagued the world, to a time before the darkness descended, bringing senseless hatred, endless bloodshed, persecution and a fight that showed no signs of ending. It was a place where love was not born of fear or desperation, and children born of such love were not sources of grief, but heralds of joy and bringers of hope for a brighter future.
It would be sometime before she realized what grew inside her, and because she was to become the last great love of his lifetime, it would be up to him to convince her that it was a gift, not a curse. He had no idea how he would do such a thing, but for the time being he would not speak of it. He would only lift her spirits and show her there was yet hope in the world, even if he sometimes had great difficulty finding the glimmer of it himself.
When at last the song ended and he lowered the flute to the table, Helti turned her gaze toward him and offered him a smile. “That was beautiful. Sometimes so very sad, and yet… wonderful and pure.”
“It is memory,” he explained with a gentle grin. “Memory of a long life that has at times been very sad and yet so very wonderful and pure.”
“Will you play another song?”
“I would be glad to.”
And so Cedric carried them through the evening, song by song, until at long last Helti began to nod off. When he stopped playing, she would jerk awake with a start and look around the cottage as if she couldn’t remember where she was or how she’d gotten there. A dark, hideous memory would surface in her, her eyes widening with the fear of it. It only began to drift away from her again when Cedric played another song.
The hour was late when she finally rose, thanked him for the lovely songs and disappeared beyond the partition to go to sleep. Cedric played on, hoping the peaceful melody would carry her into pleasant dreams where the darkness could not touch her for a time.
When he finished that song, the cottage was so quiet, her distant, calm breathing and the constant crackle of the fire in the hearth were the only sounds, and though he sometimes disliked the silence because it seemed to provoke the voices in his head, he almost felt safe himself knowing she was just a few steps away.
He felt comfortable in his home for the first time since he’d built it. Not that he was uncomfortable in it before, but it had always felt as though something was missing. Most times he dropped his things inside and went back outdoors when the weather was nice to sit around the community fire. He always felt sad when the others started to say goodnight and head into their homes when the hour grew late.
But with Helti there… everything would change. He would no longer feel like he had no reason to go home at the end of a long day. He would be alone no more.
The prospect was as exciting as it was terrifying. It had been a long time since he’d kept company with a woman in that way. He wondered if, after all those years, he even still knew how.
Lowering his flute to the table, he poured himself another drink and studied the liquid in the cup. When the time came, would she ask him to drink less, or would she find it in her heart to forgive his weakness and love him just the way he was?
Either way, he should at least make some effort… for her. Gulping down a long swallow, he clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth.
He would no longer start his day with a drink, he decided, and then he swallowed what was in the cup.