It was nearly dusk when Cedric made his way back to the cottage. Unslinging his bow and unbuckling his sword belt, he hung them both from pegs inside the door and rubbed the chill from his arms until the goosebumps began to recede. Moril had not come to him after she spoke to Helti, so he did not know what they said to one another, only that they’d spoken. He’d spied her leaving the cottage from the platform and she’d cast a strange look up at him he didn’t know how to interpret.
He was on his own? The things she’d endured were too terrible to even discuss? He couldn’t guess, and he was terrified.
She was standing in front of the hearth, simmering pork in the pot with fragrant onions, carrots and potatoes. Glancing back over her shoulder at him, she offered the barest hint of a smile as hello, then returned her attention to the task at hand.
He hesitated at the threshold of the door, just staring at her and then he swallowed his apprehension and went to her the way he always wanted to when he came home after a long day, but had yet to do. He surprised her when he slid his arms around her from behind and drew her back against his chest, even more so when he lowered his cold face against hers and turned his lips to brush her cheek in a lingering gesture of affection.
“How are you feeling?” He nuzzled the tip of his nose against her skin.
“Better, thank you. Moril made me some tea and it calmed my stomach.”
“I missed you today,” he told her, arms tightening across her waist in a comforting hug and kissing her again as if he’d always greeted her that way. She tilted her face into his kisses, and closed her eyes, reveling in the feel ofit. The closeness of her, the acceptance of his affection emboldened him and brought all the things he’d wanted to say to her since he first realized she belonged with him to the tip of his tongue. “I miss you whenever I am not in your company. Even when I know you are just a short walk away from me, I long for you as I count the steps of that short walk home and delight in the subtle smile you offer as I come through the door.”
“Cedric,” she whispered, the sound of his name on her lips so precious. She lifted a hand to his cheek and held it there, her touch warming the cold from his skin.
“I was thinking, as I made that short walk home tonight. I do not know why the gods brought us together, Helti. I only know we are together and that is as it should be. We have both seen things, been shaped by darkness too terrible to speak of, but all I care about is the lightness I feel when I am with you.”
She turned in his embrace, but he did not release her. He didn’t have to. She brought her arms up around his neck and hugged him, burying her face against his shoulder. “I don’t know why the gods brought us together either, but they have.” Her voice was muffled by his tunic, but he heard every word clearly. “They turned me over into your care, gave me your strength when I felt most weak, but now I do not know if I should stay here. I cannot burden you anymore.”
“You are no burden to me.” He withdrew his arm, pulling back to touch her face and lift it so she had to look him in the eyes. “You must stay with me,” he insisted in a soft, simple tone. “We belong together, surely you feel it too. If you left me, I don’t know what would happen to me, Helti. You’ve come to care for me, just as I care for you. You look after me, grant me strength when I feel most weak. Without you, I… I just don’t know.”
There it was again, his name on her beautiful lips, “Cedric…”
He chose that moment to kiss her for the first time, and it was everything he’d fantasized in the near two months they’d been sharing that space together. While sitting near the fire with her at night, while holding her in his arms as they slept. Face cradled between his loving hands, he descended slowly and tasted her lips. She wasn’t surprised, but she gasped in soft delight, opening her mouth against his in acceptance. The taste of mint still lingered on her lips and tongue, filling him with delightful memory from a dream he’d thought long forgotten.
All his life he’d been waiting for that kiss, for that moment of rare acceptance and peace. It stirred such things inside him, the dormant fire of his passion rekindled by her touch as she tangled fingers into his hair and let him pull her body closer.
“Please stay with me,” he murmured across her lips. He didn’t care if it sounded desperate; thoughts of losing her made him feel desperate and alone and so frightened. “Until the end of my days, stay with me.”
She surged upward into him again, onto the tips of her toes so she could reach him. She was a small woman, easily lifted as he dropped both arms and drew her feet off the ground. Her arms looped around his neck, she kissed him back, matching every one of his advances until he shuffled backward step by step, carrying her beyond the partition with him in a clumsy fashion that nearly landed them both on the floor more than once.
He turned and lowered her gently onto the bed with no thought for the pot cooking over the fire or the world beyond their door or any of the things he knew needed to be said. All that mattered in that moment was that moment. Her touch, her acceptance of the love he longed to share with her.
Drawing back to look at her, there were no words for her beauty, nor for the way she made him feel. “Esseath yeá elaine, minne aep me.”
She reached for him and drew him into her arms. The tension that had been building between them for weeks could no longer be tempered with simple caresses, traces across the skin, fingers twining through the softness of her hair.
He wanted her. Needed her.
Her touch made him feel young again, inspired and elated as he fumbled with her stockings, her dress, her smallclothes. It had been so long since he’d known a woman, since he’d fallen into her arms and descended into her inviting warmth to lose himself in the entwining of not just their bodies, but their souls.
The last great love of his life, perhaps the only true love he’d ever known, even after centuries. Her very essence wrapped around his own, became a part of him as she gasped his name with delight, pressed the tips of her fingers into his back, arched into him. Her lips against the hollow of his throat trailed upward, along his chin until she found his mouth and kissed him again and again.
With every descent into her warmth a moment flashed before him, untainted memories they’d yet to forge, but that lay open before them waiting to transpire.
Belleteyne fires, the binding of their hands, the gift of a flower that would never die because it had been given by one who loved her so deeply, making love in the gardens, the child they would bring into the world and raise together, a rare smile only he had the power to draw from her lips. Happiness in its purest form. Every moment of their life together would make all the darkness they’d seen before they came to be seem insignificant and powerless.
It was only a few years, barely a blink in the life of a Seidhe. That was all he’d be given with her, but that time would be his, theirs. It would be the only time in his life that would truly matter. His time as a father, a husband, a lover and friend…
Afterward they cradled one another, clinging breathlessly to each other in the half-darkness of twilight while supper burned in the pot. Face to face on the pillows, he touched her cheek, leaned inward to kiss her again and murmured across her lips, “Does this mean you will stay with me?”
Closing her eyes, she started to tilt her face away from him, but he wouldn’t let her escape his question or his gaze.
“I want to, Cedric, but I don’t know if I can. If I should.”
“How can you not know that you belong here with me?”
“I am with child.”
“I have known since you came here, and that is no cause for you to leave or push me away.” He tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, the tip of his finger tracing down her cheek. “I glimpsed her in a vision that night you helped me. Your daughter will be beautiful and strong and we will love her so very much.”
“But I’m so afraid. Every time I look upon this child, I will remember him, and I don’t know that I want to remember that time in my life at all.”
“He hurt you.” The very thought of anyone ever touching her that way, without her permission, shattered him inside, made him feel an anger and righteousness he’d battled with himself to forget he was capable of.
“No,” she shook her head. “He never hurt me. Not in that way. I mean, yes, he hurt me, but he did not take me against my will.” She closed her eyes thoughtfully, as though trying to put her thoughts into words. “I saved his life, even though I didn’t have to. I could have killed him so many times and none would have ever been the wiser for it. The thread of his life was stretched so very thin, it was a wonder he survived at all. They would have killed me if he died, but that was not why I saved him. I saved him because sometimes we must do what feels wrong to make things right.” A slow breath escaped her, her hand absently twined with his on the mattress between them.
“Then you paid him a kindness.”
“Yes, and before he set me free he said he wanted to repay my kindness, but all he had to offer was a little love. Perhaps I didn’t have to accept that offer, but… I don’t know how to explain it, Cedric. Something happens when you are on the verge of death with someone,” she went on. “A bond is born between you when you bring someone back from that place.”
“Such a debt can never be repaid,” he mused thoughtfully. “But if it is as you say, then perhaps it makes sense you would bear his child.” Her eyes narrowed with misunderstanding, but he went on to explain, “Hear me out. It seems a strange gift, conceivably even cruel and more than likely unintentional on his part, but this child will bring you such joy, Helti.”
“How can you know that?”
“Because I have seen her, and she is beautiful. Innocent and pure. And though you may not think her a gift now, she may well be your only chance, certainly our only chance to have a child and build a family together.”
“Why couldn’t it have been you?” she sighed, her eyes brimming with tears again.
“I am old, Helti. There is no life in me to give you. This life,” he lowered his hand across her naked stomach, which was still deceptively flat, but would swell soon enough with the life inside her, “it is a gift for both of us.”
“You would…” She didn’t seem to know how to ask that question, but she didn’t have to. He knew what she was afraid of.
“I would. We will,” he reiterated. “Together, you and I. We will raise her, and no one will ever have to know she isn’t mine. Not if you don’t want them to. Some will suspect because they know I much too old to make children, but they would never dare question it if I said it were so.”
“You would do that? Even though it would dishonor you in some people’s eyes? Your people, they would think I took you for a fool.”
Had she never been loved before? Never had someone who cared for her enough to make sacrifice for her happiness? Someone who’d gladly suffer being a fool, so long as she never saw him in that light.
“Would you think me a fool?”
“It is only your thoughts of me that matter. For you, I would do anything. Every part of you, I will love until the day I die. Esseath evellienn, me minne. You are all things to me, my love.”
“I do not deserve you,” she started to turn away, tears spilling from her eyes and dripping across the bridge of her nose.
Reaching up to brush them away, he kissed the place his finger touched and said, “You deserve to be happy, to be loved. Let me love you and make you happy for the rest of my life.” Staring into her eyes, he asked, “Will you let me?”
Nodding her head, he kissed her again, holding her close against his chest while dinner smoked and burned in the pot just beyond the partition. Neither of them even cared.
Elder Speech in this chapter:
Esseath yeá elaine, minne aep me: You are so beautiful, love of mine.
Esseath evellienn, me minne: You are everything, my love.