“Is it possible for one to cheat at this game?” Helti asked, looking up from the faded board, her dice still loosely cracking in her cupped hand as she shook them.
“What are you implying?” Cedric laughed and drew his long leg upward, resting his elbow on his knee as he waited for her to cast her re-roll. He lowered his chin into his hand and watched thoughtfully as she continued to jostle them around in an exaggerated manner.
“Only that if we were playing for actual coin I’d probably have to corner you in the alley behind the tavern with a knife and demand my coinpurse back.”
“I’ll have you know I have never once in my life cheated at this game. I’m sure there are ways it could be done, weighted dice, I suppose, but we’ve traded dice several times, and it doesn’t seem to matter which ones you use. I think we should just accept the facts as they are. You’re not very good at dice poker.”
She glanced up at him, unable to help the smile teasing at her lips. He didn’t look at her, but he was grinning too, watching her hand as she loosed it over the board, spilling the dice in the center. They rolled into position, a one, a two, a four and five. She cursed under her breath and leaned back, folding her legs closer to her body and positioning her arms behind her in a stretch. It felt good to stretch, her lower back had grown increasingly sore over the last two days in response to all the sitting around they’d done.
It stopped snowing occasionally, but not for long. Each time she went to the window, smeared her hand across the damp, cold glass to peer outside, the wind carried the snow into great, gusting drifts that piled up in front of doors, making it impossible, for the time being, to go outside. The houses directly across from them looked like structures made from the whitest, fluffiest clouds and only the high stone wall around Flotsam was vague reminder that civilization existed at all.
“I don’t think I want to play this game anymore,” she decided, huffing the hair off her forehead. “I can’t win.”
“Do you know any other games?”
“I think we’ve played all the games I know. Noughts and crosses, All the King’s Men. I’m all out of riddles and yours are too hard for my obviously underdeveloped dh’oine mind.”
“Don’t say that. Your mind is wonderful. You’re very clever.”
“Aside from feats of strength, I can’t think of anything else, and I’m not going to arm wrestle you. We’re hardly matched for such sport.”
She loved the way he laughed. He always threw his head back just a little, as if she’d said the funniest thing he’d ever heard and wanted to pay it proper homage.
“Oh come now, I would let you win. It isn’t seemly for a man to best a woman at arm wrestling, no matter the circumstances.”
“I think it really depends upon the woman, and whether or not she feels she has something to prove,” she said. “How long do you think the snow will carry on?”
“Likely a couple more days, and then we’ll have to clear our way out, rejoin civilization.”
She sighed again, tracing her fingers through her hair and holding it off her forehead. “It’s kind of nice,” she noted, stretching her legs out again and lengthening her back in hopes of relieving some of the tightness that was causing her pain. “Not being part of civilization, I mean.”
“It has been a nice opportunity for us to get to know each other,” Cedric added.
They had learned quite a bit about each other, she realized. They really hadn’t had much choice. Two endless days stuck together indoors, there was little else to do but talk to one another and though it seemed as though those days should have felt endless, they really hadn’t at all.
He asked her more about her village and she asked him about his time with the Scoia’tael and what made him decide to leave in the end. He didn’t like talking about it, she could tell it made him uncomfortable and ashamed, but he didn’t deny her answer to any of her questions. Tired of the senseless, endless battles, the inundating, all-consuming hatred, he realized almost too late he did not believe in what the Scoia’tael were fighting for.
“It was once a beautiful dream,” he lamented. “Take back what was ours, free ourselves from suffrage and oppression, but there is no freedom. And once you realize that hard truth…” He’d grown distant for a while after that, the sorrow and heartbreak evident in the faraway look he wore as he stared into the fire.
They told stories to pass the time, played games, read out loud to each other from the few books he had in his trunk. One of them was written entirely in the Elder Speech, which she asked him not to translate, but to just read while she curled up in the furs on the floor and listened to the sound of his voice.
Part of her felt like it should have disturbed her. Her introduction to his language had been filled with so much hatred, and yet when Cedric spoke it sounded peaceful and beautiful, thoughtful and deep. She wanted to know every word, to be able to understand what was being said. He noticed the concentrated furrow of her brow and stopped reading when he reached the bottom of the page. He started to tell her what he’d said, but Helti stopped him. She didn’t want to know until the end, so he returned to reading in his own language, the way it was meant to be read, and though she didn’t know what he said, she knew it was beautiful.
“I could read to you again if you like,” he offered. “There are many stories left to be told…”
“Perhaps later,” she decided. “I think I might lie down a bit. My back is aching from all this sitting on the floor, and the smoke from the fire is making me tired.”
“All right,” he agreed with a nod. She could feel him watching her as she rose with effort, stretching her back again, posing both hands on her lower back and arching her body with a long groan. “Can I get anything for you?”
“A new spine, perhaps?”
“I could fill an empty wine skin with hot water and wrap it in a sheet so you can warm the muscles. My mother used to do that for me when I was very small and my stomach ached. It might help to ease the pain, relax the muscles some.”
“That would be nice,” she agreed. “Thank you.”
She made her way beyond the partition, sat on the edge of the bed and drew her legs up to stretch them along the mattress. She arrange the pillows around her, positioning one of them between her bent legs to help stretch the muscles in her hips in hope it might offer some relief.
It took a while for Cedric to heat the water and pour it into the old wineskin. She started to drift off, the throbbing ache in her back a line holding her just at the edge of consciousness. He sat down on the other side of the bed and carefully positioned the sheet-wrapped wineskin at the base of her spine. Eyes still closed, the warmth of it seeped through her dress and spread along the throbbing muscle. He had to hold it there to keep the skin from slipping, and at some point he positioned himself lying down behind her on his side, holding it in place.
Both of them fell asleep while winter continued to pitch fits outside the walls of the cottage.
She thought, as sleep drew her ever nearer, it was a nice thing to be cared for. All her life she’d spent caring for others. Her grandmother before she died. The people of Corvin’s Dale after she became their healer. There had never been anyone to care for her in that capacity, and yet in the week since she’d come into Cedric’s life, he had done nothing but care for her.
It was… wonderful. He was so gentle, so kind and selfless, and though he’d told her he hadn’t always been so, it was hard for her to imagine he had ever been anything else but the seidhe who cared for and looked after others.
She found herself thinking about what Moril said, “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.”
It did seem he needed someone to look after him, just as much as she needed the same. Was that why the gods brought them together? Why Iorveth sent her to find him? Cedric told her he did not know Iorveth well, and it was as much a mystery to him as it was to her why he’d directed her to him. Maybe Iorveth himself didn’t even know at the time why he’d done it, and she supposed it didn’t matter. She was there, with Cedric, and for the first time in so long she was not afraid of the gaping chasm of the unknown stretching out before her.
While she slept with him positioned in the bed behind her, his hand inadvertently resting on the small of her back, dreams did not plague her sleep. There were no nightmares, no bad memories invaded her mind in short, pulsing flashes. She only slept.
At some point during their nap, she’d backed closer to his body, or maybe he’d rolled forward just a little. The cooled wineskin fell onto the bed between them and at times she could feel it. Cedric’s hand slid forward to rest limply on her hip and as she became aware of this, she thought she should be afraid, that she should edge his touch away, but she didn’t want to.
There was something comforting about the closeness of their sleeping bodies, something about his nearness that made her feel safe. Nestling her head deeper into the feather-stuffed pillow, she closed her eyes again and let sleep draw her away again.
The next time she woke the grey light of a snow-hazed afternoon had turned dark and the bed was empty. He’d put the stew back over the fire to reheat it, and she could hear him tinkering at the table with his traps. She made her way from the bed, stretching her aching back as she walked quietly across the floor until she arrived to stir the pot.
Cedric glanced over at her, his brilliant amber eyes catching the hearth’s fire in their depths. “We slept the day away.” He lowered the tool in his hand onto the tabletop and glanced back down at the rusted hunk of metal in front of him.
“I feel rested,” she told him, whirling the ladle through the stew and breathing in the aroma of it as it wafted up to tickle beneath her nose.
She had slept for days, Cedric told her, tossing and turning in the bed, haunted by terrible dreams, but for the first time since she’d come to Lobinden, for the first time since the Scoia’tael invaded her life, she hadn’t dreamed of the death and darkness they brought into her life. There had been no dreams of fevered whispers and pleas for salvation, no memory gentle caresses as two bodies writhed desperately together on the cold ground. She’d only slept.
“For the first time in weeks I didn’t dream of death and darkness.”
“That is good,” he nodded.
She tested the temperature of the stew with a fingertip, then scooped some into a bowl for herself before taking a seat near him at the table.
“Do you think the dreams will always haunt me?” she wondered aloud, dragging a spoon through the milky stew as she brought it to her lips and blew across the steam.
“They may always be a part of you,” he shrugged a shoulder. “Small things now and then might remind you of the hardships you endured, but in time you will find some peace, I believe.”
“Have you seen as much when you glimpsed my future.”
His face remained impassive, though she swore she saw a flicker of something in his eyes just before he looked away. “It doesn’t quite work that way.”
“How does it work?”
“I can’t explain it. Every time I try, I sound like an inebriated idiot, but I don’t always see things clearly. I haven’t glimpsed your future, Helti. I know only that you are a part of mine.”
“If that is true, and we are to be a part of one another’s futures, then perhaps you are right.” She sipped her soup quietly. It was a moment before she finished her thought, adding, “I will find some peace.”
He surprised her then, admitting, “If it is within my power to bring you peace, I would spend the rest of my days doing so. For you.”
His smile was so innocent and pure, so endearing that the part of her she thought to harden against the world to protect herself grew soft. It was the most beautiful thing anyone had ever said to her. And though she didn’t wish to give in so easily to the comfort his nearness seemed to bring her, it did not feel a coincidence to her that Cedric’s touch, that the proximity of his body to hers had somehow drawn the dark dreams from her sleep.
Cedric was a source of safety, respite from the storm that descended on her life, and if she was not careful her heart would ache with love for him in ways it had ached for no other. On the other hand, she had always been careful, in every aspect of her life. Treading carefully through the moments, never taking risks and it hadn’t spared her. Perhaps… no, it was a silly thing to even consider it, and yet… maybe she would not be so careful this time, not with her heart.
She spent the sum of the evening thinking about it, about Cedric, who she often caught looking at her with the most intrigued amber eyes. She wondered what went through his mind when he looked at her that way, but she never asked.
When she was finally ready to retire again to bed, she said goodnight, but then paused at the partition, struggling with herself and what she was about to say to him. A chill shuddered through her that made her throat feel dry and her skin cold. It was difficult to form even the simplest of words, and all she wanted to say was his name.
Several times she swallowed, finally glancing back over her shoulder to look at him. He was sitting at the table, fingers curled around the bottle he’d been sipping from all evening. Staring into the fire, he seemed so far away and for a moment she thought she shouldn’t disturb him, but then realized it was just another excuse. She was trying to be careful, to avoid taking a risk because risk might only bring her further pain, but being careful had not spared her from pain in the past.
“Cedric,” she finally said.
He glanced back over his shoulder as if waking from a dream. “Yes?”
“It must be horribly uncomfortable for you, sleeping at the table the way you do. I would not mind if you wanted to sleep in your bed.”
“I wouldn’t take it from you.”
“It is a large bed,” she pointed out. “I think we could both sleep there. We could share, unless…”
“You wouldn’t mind?”
“I wouldn’t mind.”
“Then I will join you in a little while,” he agreed.
Helti only nodded, and then she disappeared behind the partition. As she slid beneath the heavy blankets, she realized she was trembling, as if she’d offered to do more than just share the space with him.
She worried he might get the wrong idea, even though she herself didn’t know what the wrong idea was, or why the notion of it, once she did figure it out, was wrong at all. He’d been kind to her, and sometimes she felt him looking at her, turning his gaze away quickly before she met with it. He enjoyed her company, and she his, but they had only known each other a week, and though two long days of having nothing to do but talk to each other made up for the four days she’d spent sleeping, it wasn’t enough.
On the other hand, she already knew far more about Cedric than she’d learned of Iorveth in those long weeks she’d spent as his prisoner, and yet she’d lain with him even though he’d brought her nothing but sorrow. Cedric had all but confessed that he wanted to spend the rest of his days bringing her peace, so why was she so afraid?
During the last two days they’d spoken of so many experiences they’d had. Cedric told her shameful stories of things he’d done, of his own dark time with the Scoia’tael, the endless dh’oine he’d slain in battle, the responsibility he felt for suffering and sorrows not unlike her own, and yet she knew in her heart he would never hurt her.
He no longer looked upon others and saw how different they were. He saw only how similar people were, and it was a beautiful thing, but she knew he’d arrived at that conclusion only through self-degradation, reflection and shame over wrongs that could never be righted.
The strangest thing of all, however, was that he wasn’t complicated because of it, unless she took the drink into account, and maybe he drank to dull the pain of memories he could never undo, but it was deeper than that. He saw things, glimpses of painful future and the thought of a pain existing that she, as a healer, could not in some way quell, made her so very sad.
He was incredibly kind, and no matter the things he’d once done, he deserved some peace.
He’d welcomed her into his home, even though he knew nothing about her. He’d taken care of her when she didn’t want to take care of herself and he made her laugh when she’d grown certain there was no cause for joy left in the world at all.
He was everything Iorveth was not, and though it was still too early to tell how things would turn out in the end, part of her really wanted to stay there with Cedric forever. To find something more than friendship with him, to look into his eyes when she felt him staring at her and see what it was he saw, what he was silently willing her to see that she was so afraid to acknowledge.
It was not an uncommon thing to find love quickly in a world always teetering on the edge of collapse. At times, love was born of necessity, two companions who were little more than strangers often fell into each other’s arms and wound up spending the remainder of their days together because it did not pay to spend one’s life alone. There was strength against adversity when there was someone else to share the burden with, and this stranger had taken the share of her burden onto his shoulders and would carry it far, far away from her if she let him.
She didn’t know how much time passed before he finally blew out the candles, turned down the lantern wick and followed the flickering orange light of the hearth through the shadows beyond the partition, but she was still awake when he did. He sat down on the opposite edge of the bed with a long sigh, then crawled in beneath the heavy blankets to lay beside her. Helti lay rigid in the dark. She listened to the wood crack in the fire, felt the movement of his shuffling until he found a comfortable position.
She wasn’t sure why, but some part of her wanted him to touch her again, for his hand to reach out and rest upon her hip, but he didn’t, and so after a long time, the two of them laying there still and awake, staring into the darkness, she inched a little closer, brought her hand up to rest upon his arm at first then slid it tentatively across his chest as she scooted nearer to lay beside him.
There was nothing sexual about it, no invitation for anything more than comfort. The rigidness of his body softened, his arm maneuvering in behind her and drawing her closer.
She lowered her head upon his chest, closed her eyes and that was how they fell asleep.