Seven years later…
Helti stood at the basin, humming a quiet tune and scrubbing the last bits of food from the bottom of the kettle before dunking it beneath the surface again to rinse it clean. The slinking of his long arms around her waist took her by surprise. She heard him come in, the door rattling shut behind him, but hadn’t heard the sound of his footsteps sneaking up behind her. She thought he’d only ducked inside to grab something from the table.
Chest pressed into her back, he dipped his head downward, the black braid of his hair tickling her cheek just before his lips touched the skin.
“It’s a beautiful day. What are you doing in here?” he whispered, his kisses drifting toward her ear, the warmth of his breath as he exhaled sending shivers racing through her as his lips touched her cheek again in a gesture that spoke of more than just a little affection.
“The washing up,” she laughed, tilting her head slightly away so he could trail those kisses lower, into the curve of her neck.
He obliged her unspoken desire, murmuring, “Leave it,” across her skin.
His strong hand slid in along her waist, drawing her closer before trailing lower, tickling across the top of her thigh as he began gathering the fabric of her dress in his fingers and drawing it upward. He was noticeably aroused, she could feel him through his trousers, pressing against her back, and while it was a nice surprise, they weren’t exactly irresponsible people with no one to think of but themselves.
“What are you doing in here?” she repeated his original question and turned her head up to look at him. “Don’t you have work to do?”
“Mhm, I missed you.” His warm tongue darted out to taste her neck, teeth nibbling the skin. She shuddered, closing her eyes and tightening her jaw as she breathed in. “The taste of you on my tongue, the familiar scent of you, lilacs and lemongrass…” The whisper of his breath made her shiver. “Leave the washing and come with me.”
“Back to bed?” she chuckled again, though it was a slightly breathier sound than she expected it to be, catching in her throat with a soft moan as his warm hand slipped beneath the hem of her dress, his fingers passing across the top of her naked thigh.
“No.” His lips left a damp, tingling trail along her neckline, his eager fingers tracing inward, slipping between the loose cloth of her underthings. Her hand dropped to grip his through the fabric of her dress and hold it steady, another light moan passing through her lips. “Someplace better.”
“Have you been drinking?”
She felt his grin rise against her cheek just before he started to pull back. He withdrew his hand, her skirt dropping with a whisper down the length of her legs. “Haven’t had a drop.”
“You’re awfully… lusty,” she pointed out.
“Must I be pickled to long for the touch of my woman? To yearn for the sweet taste of her lips? For the warmth of her as she takes me inside and whispers my name into the wind?”
“No, but it’s the middle of the day, Cedric.”
“Love has no device by which it keeps time,” he took another step back and spun her around to face him. His long arm swept across the small of her back, pulling her forward as he ducked in to steal her kiss. “It is ever ready,” he breathed across her lips. “Always hungry…”
“Cedric,” his name escaped her in the breathy whisper he spoke of and his arms tightened around her. “Invae is…”
“Fishing with Seherim,” he grinned down at her, the rare smile he reserved for her, the one that reached his brilliant amber eyes and really made them shine. “Come with me,” he urged. “Please. There’s something wonderful I wish to show you.”
“But if she…”
“You are a mother hen,” he teased. “She will be fine with Seherim. He promised to look after her so I could show you this truly wonderful and amazing place. She won’t even know we’re gone until after we’ve gone. Maybe we’ll even return before they do and she’ll never even know we were gone at all.”
“Where are we going?”
“I’ve already told you, somewhere beautiful.” Stepping back, he grabbed her wet hand in his and began tugging her toward the door. “You’ll see.”
Dropping the towel on the chest beside the door, he drew her outside with him into the late morning sun. It streamed through the treetops, mingling delightful warmth and shade in the perfect combination.
He looked around almost suspiciously, then darted past the platform and headed left along the pathway leading into the woods. They slipped through briar and brush, Cedric still holding her hand as they wove along. She realized when she heard the waterfall and found the path that began leading upward, he was taking her to the elven ruins of Cáelmawedd, and while it was beautiful, she had seen it before, many times actually, and couldn’t understand why it was so important to him that they go there with such haste.
The first time he’d taken her to Cáelmawedd she was still with child. They’d leapt the Belleteyn fires together just days before, binding their hands together on the eve of May. Swept away in the romanticism of love’s whim, Cedric promised to take her to the most beautiful place she would ever see in her life, keeping her occupied and busy on the long walk through the woods with the story of Eldan and Cymoril and words and phrases in the Elder Speech so she could speak to his heart.
The late spring air was warm and decadent, the heat of the day making their clothes cling to their bodies. Being pregnant and uncomfortable, she spent much of the journey complaining, asking him how to say things like, “Can we turn back now,” and “Are we there yet,” in the Elder tongue.
“Glosse,” he led her through the archway, the fragrant beauty overwhelming as she took it all in. “Ess elaine, ie?”
“Yes,” she gasped. “It is beautiful.”
“Even this place pales in the light of your beauty.” She’d been so caught up in the moment, the almost-otherworldly grace and wonder of the place, she hadn’t noticed he’d gone down on his knees in front of her. He used the knife on his belt to cut a rose from the bushes growing in front of the statues. Holding the flower out to her, he took her hand in his and said, “My gift to you. This flower can never die.”
“Is it magic?”
“Love magic,” he’d grinned impishly and twirled the stem between his fingertips. “A Rose of Remembrance. Our love will nourish this flower. Even long after we are both gone from this world, it will go on thriving until time itself has no meaning because not even death can touch true love.”
Even on his knees, he was so tall, his head rested against her belly, she stroked fingers through his hair and felt her self-consciousness grow as he pressed his lips to the swell of her stomach. She felt his deft fingers untangling the tie of her dress, and soon they lay in the warm, lush grass beneath a cloudless, blue and perfect sky. He was enthralled with her body, which she found so hard to believe, murmuring, “Soon you will be disgusted by the very sight of me,” she’d thought aloud as he stroked adoring fingers across the swell of her belly.
“No,” he laughed at her. “No, no, no, you are even more beautiful to me like this. So ripe and full of life, like fruit ready to be plucked from the vine and devoured.”
It had been the most erotic thing anyone had ever said to her. Her hormones were wild inside her, burning like an unquenchable fire, and the dulcet, casual way he spoke made her shiver. It probably didn’t help matters much that he nibbled the sensitive skin of her neck when he said it, one hand cupping her swollen breast while the other caressed the top of her thigh.
While he was inside her, their breathy sighs and elated cries were not the only celebration of love in the gardens that afternoon. She swore she heard the haunted beauty of the elven lovers’ sighs, which Cedric told her could still be heard by those in love.
She’d known other lovers in her time, but they’d stirred nothing inside her, failed to ignite more than her hunger for their bodies, but not Cedric. Cedric woke such things within her it brought tears to her eyes as they reached climax together, their hands tangled, their gasping lips searching for one more kiss even when they were spent and so tired they couldn’t imagine making the long hike back to Lobinden.
“You could have just said we were going to Cáelmawedd,” she skipped forward, trying to match his stride. “I still would have come with you.”
His legs were so much longer than hers and he was an experienced hiker. She often had a hard time keeping up with him, but he slowed down his pace when he realized it and squeezed her hand inside his own.
“But we’re not just going to Cáelmawedd,” he exclaimed, as if she’d defamed the very idea of the surprise he was keeping from her. “Something wonderful has been revealed there, something so beautiful I must show you before others return and it’s too dangerous for me to bring you to this place.”
“What others?” Reaching the plateau, he climbed up first, then helped to lift her onto the stone landing beside him. “What’s happened?”
“Yesterday the vatt’ghern and his sorceress came up here to find a Rose of Remembrance. The sorceress, Triss Merigold, came to me and asked for my help. She believes a petal from one could help restore the witcher’s lost memories, so I told her where to look. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but she asked nicely…”
“You like her,” Helti asked in a sing-song voice, elbowing him playfully in the side as they walked, “don’t you? This Triss Merigold? You think she’s beautiful?” And the woman was beautiful, but it was a cold beauty that made the healer uncomfortable each time she swayed and sashayed through Lobinden to search for Cedric. Not that she was jealous, she trusted Cedric, but she didn’t trust the sorceress.
She didn’t have to glance over her shoulder at him as they ducked through the archway into the gardens to see him rolling his eyes. “She is a beautiful woman, and you know I appreciate all things of beauty, but you also know that I only truly see you, me minne.”
“I know.” It still made her blush sometimes when he said such things to her. “I was only teasing you.”
Glancing forward she saw the gaping indentation in the stone where the garden courtyard collapsed, her heart skipping a little at the dilapidation of a place once sacred and revered. It had boasted dozens of beautiful elven statues, all of them taken over the years, stolen by selfish dh’oine looking to decorate their palaces and gardens with elven relics and priceless treasures. Strange, she knew, that she sometimes thought of her own people as dh’oine, and not always in a positive light. The word rose to her mind and her lips each time her own race brought her shame and scorn.
The only statue that remained was the lovers, Eldan and Cymoril, and she knew in her heart it wouldn’t be long before they, too, were taken away and all memory of the Aen Seidhe was wiped clean from that once magical and sacred place.
“What happened here?” She took a step toward the collapsed stone, but Cedric drew her away with a quick, cautious tug on her arm.
“The witcher and his sorceress happened,” he answered in a dry tone. “So much bloodshed in this place… But come,” drawing her around the debris, he guided her toward a hidden pathway that dropped down inside the ruins. The dust motes still whirled and danced in the air as if they’d only just been stirred, catching like golden magic in the light.
He ducked downward, through a forced and crumbling opening, dropped down into the ruins and then held his hand out to help her along. As she toed the edge, he positioned hands on her hips, hoisted her off the ledge as if she weighed no more than a child and lowered her to her feet again.
“Is it safe for us to be here?”
“Perfectly safe. I would not bring you to a place where you’d be hurt.”
She could hear the whispering hush of moving water, a waterfall’s constant sound and the air had grown suddenly humid, enough so that after only a few steps her dress felt as though it clung to her skin like damp fabric in the deepest heat of summer.
“What is this place?” she marveled.
“It used to be a bathhouse,” Cedric told her, hopping down and then turning in to circle hands around her waist so he could lift her inside with him. He didn’t loosen his hands from her waist that time when he set her down, but held onto her, his fingers absently looping in the fabric at the waistline of her dress. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
Helti scanned the interior, the mid-morning sunlight streaming through the cracks in the stone and brightening the place so vividly it was almost easy to pretend they were outdoors beneath the sun itself. The carved-tile floor glistened with perspiration from the water, heated by a spring that pumped a continual stream into the pool and caused steam to rise and hang above it like a cloud. There were benches nested on the edge of the pool, and though the floors and pillars were cracked, the water looked clean and beautiful.
“Oh Cedric,” she muttered softly, “it really is beautiful.”
“It is a magical place,” he said, following the line of her gaze before turning his eyes back down to search her face and experience her joy. “A place to enjoy and share with one’s lover.”
“Can we…” She looked toward the pool again, suddenly feeling how grimy her skin felt, how sweaty she was from the hike. “Is the water…”
“We can,” he agreed with a delightful, almost boyish nod, “if you’d like.”
Helti smiled up at him, nodding as she confessed, “I would like to very much.”
The hands on her waist slid lower, down over the curve of her backside, which he squeezed before pulling her against him and gathering that fabric again with his fingers. He continued the delicate, ticklish movement until he he’d drawn enough to gently lift and tug the dress up over her chest, her stretched arms and head, and then he tossed it over his shoulder with abandon, his eyes widening with intrigue as he looked her over.
She began to undress him with careful, but eager fingers. She unbuckled the strap of his bow harness, then worked the buckle of his belt, carefully lowering his bow and swords into a pile at his back before turning her attention to the small buttons that lined his leather vest and the strings that drew his tunic over his chest.
Every movement was a ritual, the well-practiced steps in a sacred dance only the two of them knew. He was eager, but he respected the ceremony, taking great delight each time the tips of her fingers brushed across bare skin and made him tremble.
When, at last, everything they wore had fallen to the damp floor in forgetful piles, Cedric lowered his hand to take hers and walked her toward the edge of the pool. When they arrived, she dipped the tip of her toe in, the instant heat rippling through her body like a delightful shock she wanted more of.
Turning a soft, playful look over her shoulder, she let go of his hand and dove into the pool. It was blissfully warm, her skin glowing pink with the heat. Cedric followed with a splash.
They came up together, Helti immediately slicking back the dripping waves of her loosened gold hair, Cedric ignoring the water pouring from his braids and into his face and immediately skimming across the pool until he arrived in front of her. He lifted a hand to her cheek, eyes flitting across her face before he leaned inward and gently kissed her on the lips. He lingered there, his own lips slightly parted as if inviting her to taste them. She did.
Helti lifted her arms around his neck, circling them to draw him in deeper. He answered the gesture by cradling the backs of her thighs in his lowered arms and then lifting her body against his. She felt the eager rise of him brush across her thigh, but he wasn’t ready to fill her yet.
He waded through the pool with her, carrying her to the ledge where he raised her up to sit in front of him. The air cooled her skin, raising goosebumps across the surface and hardening her nipples. Arms perched atop his shoulders, he lowered his forehead against her chest and just stood that way for a long time while she traced thoughtful patterns across the wet, glistening skin of his back and adoringly kissed the top of his head.
“This world has known me for so long,” he lifted his head just enough to brush thoughtful lips across the tops of her breasts. “And I have known it too, often far more intimately than I would have liked. I have seen so many things.” He exhaled against her damp skin, evoking chills and gooseflesh again before he darted his tongue out as if to taste her. Suckling lips followed, another heated breath, “Here at the end of all things there is only you.”
She brought her hand to rest on the back of his head, holding him against her chest as she lowered kisses into his hair. He turned his head upward, finding those kisses, cradling her face in his hands as he murmured across her mouth, “Esseath evellienn aep me. Me aine, me minne, me elaine Cáerme.”
“Oh Cedric,” she whispered.
He took her in his arms again, circled her legs around his waist and drew her back into the water with him. She slid her hand down his chest, reached between them and stroked gently until he gasped against her lips. She guided him inside her, swallowing the delighted exhale of his exalted breath as he filled her, letting a whimper slip from her when he backed her against the wall behind her.
She saw nothing but stars when he was within her, felt as if the world itself fell away, leaving only the two of them suspended in a sea of brilliant, shimmering, endless constellations. He spoke to her, whispering words of love she didn’t always know the meaning of, even after years of learning his language, but she felt and understood them nonetheless.
We are all things together, there is no life but our life, no death for what we share. We are the very essence of love.
And when at last he’d filled her, spilling his seed inside her even though it could never sprout there in her womb, he remained within her until he’d grown soft and compliant in her arms. Content, he traced affectionate kisses along her collarbone, her neck, her cheeks, all the while murmuring soft, serene sighs.
She could have asked him for the moon at that moment, and he’d have found a way to give it to her.
Nuzzling her nose along his cheek, she kissed him and closed her eyes. “I wish,” she began and then stopped herself before the words could leave her.
“Tell me,” he urged, turning in to find her kiss again. “Tell me what you wish, me minne, and I will make it come true.”
Helti shook her head, turned it downward and rested it against his shoulder as she looped her arms around him and hugged him against her. The water whirled around them, rippling against their bodies.
“Ah,” he said thoughtfully, holding her closer, “the impossible wish.” After a quiet moment, he told her, “We have been given a wonderful gift, Helti. I know at times you don’t believe it has been enough to content me, raising another Seidhe’s child, but it is. I have never had to pretend. From the moment I first felt her kick inside you, my heart did not know the difference. She is mine, as much as she is yours.”
“I know, but if we had been given a child of our own…”
“She is our child,” he insisted. “She always will be. Even when the time comes for her to know the truth, she will remember this time in her life. She will remember how much she was loved by me, the one who tucked her in and told her stories, who held her when she cried and wiped away her tears. In times of doubt and fear, she will know in her heart her Ater loved her more than his own life.”
“Have you seen this time when she will know the truth?”
“I have seen many things,” he sighed. “You know this.”
“But you never speak of them to me.”
“Because they are not important, minne aep me. At the end of all things, all that matters is that we loved one another well and that we taught her how important that is. To love well, Helti. It is the only thing that matters in the end.”
She hesitated a moment, her throat suddenly tight and aching. It was the second time he’d mentioned the end. “Are we at the end, my love?”
He’d never spoken of it, only that he’d glimpsed his own end, that he would know when it was time to say goodbye. She hadn’t asked him for the details; she didn’t want to know, but this strange escape together, this perfect moment, it felt like a goodbye.
“No…” she touched her fingers to his lips before he could speak. “If it is the end, please don’t tell me,” she whispered and closed her eyes so the tears wouldn’t fall.
“We will never end,” he told her. “Wherever you are, I will always be with you. You will feel me as the sun kisses your face, hear my voice when the wind whispers through the trees. At night when the moonlight streams through your windows, it will be as though I watch over you as you sleep.”
“Don’t leave me,” she pleaded in a soft, desperate voice. “Please, Cedric. Say you never will.”
“I could never lie to you. My heart would not allow it.”
She didn’t know how long they stayed there, but they made love again for, she would later realize, the last time before climbing from the pools and slipping back into their clothes with quiet reservation. She looped the leather of his belt and tugged it through, refusing to look up at him until he lifted her chin and made her see him.
“Smile for me,” he said. “In that way you only do for me.”
Helti smiled and he smiled back, then he reached down and took her hand.
Descending from the gardens, they made the journey back to Lobinden, hand in hand, quiet and content.
She did not let herself think about the end, which he said wasn’t really the end. She only thought about the way her hand fit perfectly inside his, how much she liked it when he nudged into her as they walked and then turned an almost playful grin down at her before nudging into her again until she nudged him back.
Arriving to the excited squeals of their little girl standing atop the watch tower platform, Invaernewedd bounced on the balls of her feet, her dark braids whipping around her face, her bonnet dropping around her neck.
“They’re coming, Seherim. I see them,” she cried with glee. “Mother! Ater! Can you see me? I’m up here on the platform watching the forest with Seherim. Just like you, Ater!”
“Yes! I can see you, my flower!” Cedric brought a hand to his mouth to carry the sound of his laughing voice to her ears. “What do you see in the forest? Is it safe?”
“I saw a bear!” she told him. “Wait! Don’t walk too fast. I’m coming to meet you on the road, Ater!”
“Don’t tramp through the mud, Invae. I washed that dress just yesterday.” Helti sighed, the warning in her tone quickly dying as her shoulders dropped. Cedric squeezed her hand, nudging playfully into her as they walked. “You tell her not to tramp through the mud. She listens to you.”
“The mud won’t hurt her,” he shrugged. Only after she elbowed him in the ribs did he call out, “Don’t run in the mud, Invae.”
“I won’t!” she promised.
She handed the spyglass quickly to Seherim, who hollered after her, “Be careful rushing down that ladder! If you fall your mother will never forgive me.” But she was already gone, sliding down the rungs like an old pro and splashing through the mud along the side of the stream.
She ran, making dark splashes with every leaping bound until she arrived to meet them on the road and threw herself into her father’s waiting arms. Helti stood back, head tilting, watching as he scooped her up, never minding the smears of mud from her shoes and specked legs, as he spun her laughing in his arms.
“Where were you, Ater?”
“I took your mother for a walk.”
“Why didn’t you wait for me?”
“It was a special walk just for her.”
“Did you take her to see the kayran?” she huffed indignation. “I wanted to see the kayran! Seherim said the Old Man’s dead, that the vatt’ghern killed him. I want to see the body, Ater. Will you take me?”
“Only if your mother says it’s all right.”
“I don’t know why you’d want to see a dead monster,” Helti shook her head, “but I suppose you can go. You’re already muddy, you may as well.”
“Do you want to come with us, Mama?”
“No, it’s all right. The two of you go.”
Cedric leaned in, still holding their daughter in his arms as he kissed her. “We won’t be long,” he promised.
“Not long at all,” Invaernewedd reiterated. “Carry me on your back, Ater!”
“Oh, all right.” He unstrapped his bow and handed it over to Helti to hold before he lowered to the ground and let the girl climb onto his back. He rose to his full height again. Retaking his bow in his hand, he started away, glancing back at her, winking and grinning before he picked up the pace and jogged back into the woods.
Helti stood there below the platform, watching the two of them disappear, listening to the playful sound of their voices, Invaernewedd’s laughter joining with the sound of the rustling leaves overhead.
He loved her well, their little girl, and maybe it was true what he’d said. Maybe his heart didn’t know the difference.
She was his daughter, and always would be—even long after he’d gone from the world.
Elder Speech used in this chapter:
Ess elaine, ie?: It’s beautiful, yes?
Esseath evellienn aep me. Me aine, me minne, me elaine Cáerme.: You are everything to me. My light, my love, my beautiful Destiny.
Me minne: my love
Minne aep me: love of mine