Everything seemed to change after they began sharing the bed. The funny thing, at least in his mind, was that he hadn’t even meant to fall asleep with her the first time. It just happened, and he didn’t know if being near had anything to do with the dissipation of her bad dreams, but she believed it did and who was he to argue. Even he felt as if he slept better when he slept with her.
They grew closer by the day, comfortable in each other’s company and the routines they began to establish together. She cared for him in all the ways he neglected to care for himself. She made sure he ate before leaving in the morning and again when he returned to the cottage in the evenings. She tended to wounds he received while fighting off nekkers and endrega that came too close to Lobinden and mended his clothes of wear and tear.
She didn’t say anything more about his drinking, but even he noticed he was doing less of it. Not much less, but enough that at times the crowding of visions in his mind was almost more than he could bear, and sometimes only the gentle tracing of her finger across his chest while she curled up in his arms was powerful enough to distract him from them.
Funny, that. Her touch, her nearness… She did not make the visions go away entirely, but her presence made them… tolerable.
At night when he climbed into bed with her, he found himself reaching for her without thought, drawing her into his arms as if she’d always been there for him to hold, and he was only able to relax when she was nestled snugly against him.
Cedric delighted in the closeness of her, ignoring the distinctly male impulses he sometimes felt stirring when he woke to find her still curled up exactly where she’d fallen asleep across his chest, her hand sometimes positioned across his stomach. He was old and some part of him, the part who had been long away from a woman’s arms, actually believed he might not be so easily roused, but her nearness woke desire in him, stirred a longing within he struggled to believe he would experience again in his lifetime.
He would lift a hand into her hair, stroke fingers through the strands until she woke and nuzzled even closer to share his heat in the cold grey light of coming dawn. He never kissed her, though he wanted to all the time. Before he left in the mornings, when he arrived home in the evenings. He longed to brush his lips across her brow, to plant tender pecks upon each cheek before tasting the sweetness of her lips, but the time was not right and he knew it.
She trusted him with her body; he would not take advantage of that trust.
Sometimes they would lay there, awake and silent, Cedric’s fingers twining around her hair, drifting lower to caress her shoulder, sometimes her cheek. It was a strange, but beautiful thing how much he enjoyed simply holding her. There was no pressure for anything more, no urgency to ascend to whatever level next awaited them.
It felt, even though he knew nothing could be further from the truth, as though they had all the time in the world.
Yule came, bringing with it the undeniable signs of what she carried inside her. The exhaustion made it difficult for her to get out of bed, though she blamed it on the cold and swore it was easier to stay beneath the blankets than it was to touch bare feet to the floor and walk to the fire to build it up again. The nausea that clung to each morning and sometimes followed her well into the afternoon, could not be so easily ignored, but for a while she tried.
Something she ate, perhaps. A winter illness.
Sometimes he would return in the late afternoon and find her napping, and she wouldn’t wake until he was lowering food onto the table to feed them both.
She was a healer, he reasoned with himself. Surely she understood the signs, knew the changing rhythms of her body and what they implied, but as December rolled into January and Imbaelk drew nearer with the changing of the weather again, she continued to insist it was only food poisoning.
Sometimes she was so violently ill, she couldn’t eat at all and he worried she would not take proper care of herself and the child that grew in her womb.
Cedric was beside himself, not knowing how to approach revealing his awareness without upsetting her. It was a delicate thing, a budding relationship, and if he pried the petals before they were ready to bloom, the flower would crumble.
He continued to tell himself she would recognize the signs, that maybe she already had and just didn’t want to face them. The child must be a source of pain for her, one she’d rather deny than acknowledge, but she was fast approaching a safe point where a simple potion would solve the problem, and besides, he’d already seen the child coming into the world.
Her grace, her beauty, the confusion that plagued her as she tried to understand who she was and where she belonged. Was she Aen Seidhe? Was she Dh’oine? Where did she fit between two people who despised and mistrusted one another so severely?
Invaernewedd… A beautiful, impossible and stubborn flower that took root in the harshest soil… Winter’s child.
Two days before Imbaelk, he went to Moril for advice, leaving Seherim alone on the platform and heading toward the river, where the two had built their small cottage. He’d debated with himself for days. Not sure he should involve Moril, who in the weeks behind them had become a dear friend and confidant to Helti.
He did not think Moril knew, however, but if she did…
He found her arguing with a dh’oine who thought to cheat her on a fair price for the fish she was selling. Seeing him approach, the dh’oine scowled and told her he would catch his own fish then stalked away muttering under his breath about greedy elves.
“No one wants to work for anything,” she rumbled, returning the fish to the line outside the cottage. Cedric watched it sway as she backed away, the sunlight streaming through the trees above and catching on the rainbow of its beautiful scales. Continuing her rant with a vengeance the dh’oine surely heard, even as he was several strides away from the cottage and in a hurry to get away, she added, “They expect everyone else to do all the work and share in the benefits out of the goodness of their hearts, and yet if I were the one hungry, he would charge me three times what I am asking and give me the smallest of his catches. He would probably ask me to lay down beneath him, too.”
“You are having a particularly bad day, I see.”
She spun to face him, the braid of her golden hair whipping over her shoulder with the movement. “Bad does not even begin to describe this day. The weather shows the barest hint of shifting, the cold breaks just a little, and everyone turns into a fool. But I refuse to let the selfishness of Dh’oine spoil me on this beautiful day. The sun is so bright, the river is swelling with the melting of the snow and soon it will be warm enough that I can walk barefoot along the water again. I miss walking barefoot when the snows come. The feel of the earth beneath my feet, the mud squishing between my toes…”
“It won’t be long now.”
“How are you, my dear Cedric? It has been weeks since you stopped by to say hello, not that I begrudge you for it. You have been spending time with your lovely healer, and that is as it should be. Helti has done good things for you. There is color in your cheeks, a bounce in your step. You must be well.”
“I am well,” he nodded. “Though each day passes too slowly, as I am parted from her to tend to my duties, and then the nights, while she is in my arms rush by so quickly. I feel as though I only rest my head and close my eyes for a moment before it is time to leave the comfort of her embrace again.”
“Such is love’s curse,” she grinned. “The newness of it makes us feel like fools, does it not?”
“Ah, but I would rather be a fool than one who suffers without the lightness of being in love.”
“I envy you that lightness, for today I would wring Seherim’s neck if he even so much as looked at me wrong. I am sure it is only winter’s chill, clinging to the threads of our love and making them more difficult to weave. Too much time indoors together, but as the weather changes and spring returns, we will find our own lightness again. We always do.”
“To be sure.”
Though in truth he couldn’t imagine ever feeling that way, but then what did he know? It had been so long since he’d been in love, he barely remembered those rare moments when it felt stale because a couple spent too much time in one another’s company.
They were quiet for a time, reflecting on love’s constant nature, the ripples in a calm stream that came with time and comfort in one another’s company. Life was the ripples for him, Helti the calmness… Then Moril shrugged her shoulders and said, “And see, there it is. The shine in your eyes made me miss him just now. Perhaps I will make my way to the platform and bring him something to eat. Ask him to take a walk with me later along the river.”
“I’m sure he would appreciate that.”
“Despite the glow that surrounds you, I sense not all is as it should be as love’s flower blooms.”
“It is not the blooming of the flower,” he shook his head. “It is something else, and as the two of you have grown close these last weeks, I do not know if I should speak of it with you for fear of breaching her trust.”
“Her trust in me or the trust she has placed in you?”
“Then why have you come, if not to talk?”
“Because I am at a loss, Moril. Something is not quite right, and yet I worry if I bring it up to her, it will only serve to cause her pain.”
“You must tell me now, Cedric, otherwise I will worry. These last weeks she has become dear friend…”
“Then surely you must already know the truth.”
“And what truth would that be?”
“Has she spoken with you about her time with the Scoia’tael?”
“Some, but I sense at times she hasn’t told me everything, and that is her right. None want to rehash painful memory. We all wish to forget.”
“I would not discourage her from forgetting, so I do not ask for more than she is willing to supply when she does wish to talk about it, but…” he paused, glancing toward the treetops.
The canopy of leaves overhead swayed and jostled in the wind, creating a whispering hush that sounded like distant voices in his mind. The whispers were so many he couldn’t distinguish one from the other, but they all said the same thing. Invaernewedd. Invaernewedd. Winter’s Child. Invaernewedd.
“She is with child.”
He brought his gaze back down, found Moril’s brilliant hazel eyes widening as she gawped at him. Sufficient evidence she had no idea. “How… You…”
“I have not,” he insisted, holding up his hand to stay her thoughts before they overran her. “I have only held her in my arms, and nothing more. My lips have not even touched hers, and besides, I am far too old to spark life in a woman’s womb. I have known since she first came to me. I saw her child in a vision…”
“Oh, Cedric, this… I had no idea. She never mentioned that kind of abuse, though I don’t know why I am surprised.”
“Perhaps she feels ashamed,” he shook his head. “In any case, it has been many weeks now, Moril. Months, even, since she came to me. Surely she must know. She is a healer. She must recognize the signs.”
“I speak with her nearly every single day, and she has mentioned nothing of the sort. She has grown lighter, despite her winter illness, always happy when she talks of you, but then perhaps it is as you say, and she is ashamed. Are you going to do something?”
“What do I do? Do you understand my dilemma? I am no woman. I cannot even begin to imagine how to begin such a conversation…”
“Ah, now I understand. I am a woman, and so you want me to speak with her.”
Shaking her head, she lowered it thoughtfully and stared at the muddied earth beneath her feet. “I don’t know, Cedric. We have become fast friends, that is true, but if she has not confided this to me, how will it make her feel if I confront her with it?”
“More comfortable than it would make her feel if it were me?” he tried.
Moril sighed again, crossing her arms over her chest as she stared him with large, beautiful eyes. “Of course, you’re right. She cares for you. She may be afraid of your reaction. And if you are the one to bring it up, it may only serve to push her away. I am a woman, and a friend. It is only natural I should notice, I suppose. After all, that is what women do. I will talk to her, and in so doing maybe I can urge her to talk with you.”
“She must know that no matter what, I will not shun her,” he insisted. “I would never… You must make sure she knows that, Moril. That I will love every part of her until the day I die.”
Raising a comforting hand to his shoulder, she squeezed and said, “I know you would never do anything to hurt her.”
“But maybe she does not know…”
“She would be more convinced of this if she heard those words from you, but I will talk with her.”
“You are good to me, Moril.”
“I live to see you smile, my friend.”