Helti knelt over the pot, the nausea coupling with a head-rushing dizziness that made her feel like she was going to pitch backward and lose consciousness. She’d tied her hair back in a braid when she woke, but the loose strands that escaped through the morning now stuck to her sweat-beaded forehead, feeling like spider’s legs tickling across her skin when she huffed.
She swiped her hand across her mouth, steadying herself by holding onto the wall with her other hand. Dropping her head forward a little, she closed her eyes and tried to steady her breathing and calm the out of control spinning of the world whirling around her body.
It wasn’t fair.
And she was not one to easily fall back on that quip in relation to the bad things that happened. Bad things happened all the time, most of them to good people. She was a good person. At least she thought she was…
Never before in her life had she been so brazen as to fall without thought into the arms of a man, without taking proper precaution beforehand to prevent such things. And the one time… The one instance she did not want to walk away with a child in her belly, there it was…
Life was cruel. It really was.
There was nothing left in her stomach to expel, but she heaved anyway, over the pot again, her knuckles curling against the dirt floor of the cottage, holding her barely upright.
Less than an hour upon the cold ground, the enjoyment of a rare kiss and the confusion of her own emotions as Iorveth told her he never wanted to forget her or the things she’d done for him. Apparently, the gods didn’t want her to forget him either.
She wasn’t confused as to the how, only the why. Why would the gods do something so cruel? Were they mocking her? Was it punishment for giving in to the rare promise of peace between her captor and herself?
En’ca minne. A little love… An hour’s peace and a lifetime with the memory of it staring back at her with innocent eyes. Every time she looked at that child, she would think of him. Remember the darkness mingling with the light.
And just when she was finding peace, letting herself fall in love with someone who, flawed as he was, was so perfect for her. So gentle and kind, so thoughtful and wonderful…
It wasn’t fair.
She hadn’t heard the door open, nor the footsteps shuffling through the cottage, but then Moril was there, helping her up from the floor, back to the bed where she sat down beside her, her comforting arm rubbing gently across Helti’s back. At some point she convinced her to lie down, went to fetch a cool, wet cloth that she dabbed across her forehead and cheeks before brushing the hair away.
“You dear girl,” Moril shook her head. “Cedric is so worried. He knows you are not sick, Helti, but he’s so afraid you will push him away if he asks about this.”
It made her cry, all of it. The situation, the reality of it, Cedric being afraid that she would push him away, when, in fact, it should have been him pushing her away. Rolling onto her side, the sobs overpowered her as the reality of it fully gripped her for the first time.
She knew. She’d known for a while. Some part of her kept trying to deny it, but deep down the terrifying truth was always there. She kept hoping it was only her fear, that if she stopped thinking about it, it would go away, but it wasn’t going anywhere.
It… was another person.
“You don’t have to tell me what happened if you don’t want to,” her friend said, resting a gentle hand against her damp cheek. “But I want to help you.”
“Nothing happened,” she shook her head. “Nothing so dark as you might think, and perhaps that is why I am ashamed. No one forced me. Not even once, though they could have. No… I gave consent.”
Like a fool. She could lie to herself, say she’d been afraid he wouldn’t let her go if she denied him, but deep down she’d known he would set her free at the end. Iorveth cared for her because she saved his life. She’d seen it in his gaze so many times while he stood near her at the fire, allowing her that rare bit of warmth before ushering her back into her cell. Someone who wanted her dead would not take pains to make sure she did not freeze.
“There was a strange bond between us, Moril. I saved him, brought him back from death and refused to let him go. He said he never wanted to forget what I did for him, that he wanted to repay my kindness. En’ca minne.”
Through the blur of her own tears, she saw Moril’s face, so beautiful, yet so sad. “Oh,” she murmured softly and then lowered herself, her arms coming around Helti and hugging her. “Oh, Helti… Did you… Do you love him?”
“No,” she whispered, but she could have. If she’d gone with him, maybe, but she would never know for sure, and now she didn’t care because he’d set her free. And it was for the best, but in some small way he hadn’t really set her free at all. He’d bound himself to her for the rest of her life. “But I didn’t hate him either, and now I suppose I must love some part of him for the rest of my days, mustn’t I?”
“It is not too late,” she insisted. “It is still early. You know what to do. I am sure you have aided others in seeing such things done…”
“I have done, yes, but I can’t. I could never…”
She had helped others terminate unwanted pregnancies before, but she had also brought children into the world and felt the magic of their life as they drew first breath. Life was precious, especially life born from love, and maybe it hadn’t been love like the stories Cedric read to her from elven fairytales, but it had been all he’d been able to offer in the way of payment for saving him.
“How will I care for a child? I am without a home. I’ve nothing…”
“No,” she drew back again, fiercely shaking her head. “No, you are not without a home. This is your home now. Here, with Cedric. He would never turn you out. He would give you everything you need. Everything, Helti. He loves you.”
Did he? Was that the strange glimmer she saw sometimes in his eyes?
He had never said it, though sometimes the deepest of loves need not be spoken. And she supposed in some way he must, for why would he care for her? Why would he keep her there with him, sharing his bed with her and making efforts to be a better man, even though it brought him an immense amount of pain to avoid drink? She noticed when he wasn’t drinking, just the same way she noticed him watching her sometimes. Whenever she caught him, he would smile at her in that strange, but beguiling way that made her feel like he knew some wonderful secret and he couldn’t wait for the right moment to share it with her. Love, that was his secret. And she loved him too, but…
“How is that fair to him?” she asked. “How could I ever ask him to…”
“To love your child? He will love every part of you, if you just let him. That is what love is. Love does not see flaws, my darling friend.”
Did she deserve to be loved? She was so confused, some part of her still broken, unsure of what was left of her after all she’d lost. And she was so scared. Cedric made her feel safe, almost whole again and she wanted the simple life they’d started to build together with an uncanny sense of ease, but an unexpected child was a complication. She could never ask him to take on the responsibility of another’s child.
As if she were somehow attuned to Helti’s innermost fears and thoughts, Moril heaved another weary sigh and said, “Talk to him. Tell Cedric the truth you just told me. You will see, Helti. He sees nothing when he looks at you but the way you make him feel, and you make him feel so alive.”
“I… I just don’t want to hurt him, Moril. He is strong, but so fragile…” It was a strange thing to think of him that way, but it was true. He had so many burdens; she didn’t want to be another one.
“He is stronger than he seems and I feel there is very little you could do to hurt him unless you were to push him away. Tell him, Helti. Everything. I promise you, he will not turn you or your child away.”
Swallowing against the ache and stiffness in her throat, she lowered her head into the pillow and let herself cry while Moril stroked comforting fingers through her hair and promised again and again that everything would be okay.
Maybe Moril was right. Maybe he did love her and maybe love was truly blind, but there was only one way to find out.
She would tell Cedric. She would tell him everything she’d been holding back.