Note: this story takes place just minutes after Sometimes We Must and is connected to Veloë Vort (Quickly Away), Esseath Evellienn (You Are All), Invaernewedd (Winter’s Child) and Luned aep Me (Daughter of Mine)
She had blood on her face, a thin smear swiped across her cheek, dried and flaking, but she didn’t seem to notice. Her preoccupied mind was elsewhere, and for a long time after the vatt’ghern departed from her house, the healer made herself busy. Washing her tools, clearing the table, cleaning her hands, wiping down the chair, tugging the bloodied apron from her body and seemingly ignoring him.
Iorveth watched her, following her every movement with care as he thought once more about the words he’d been mulling over for weeks. He knew she would never love him the way she’d loved Cedric, but she could not deny the bond between them anymore than he could. He saw the awareness of it flash in her eyes as they were saying goodbye, and again when she’d reached down to take their daughter’s hand before he departed for Loc Muinne.
Everyone thought he was in love with Saskia, but nothing could be further from the truth. Saskia was a great leader, a powerful dragon. He admired her virtue, rallied the Scoia’tael behind her banner because she fought for all of them. Most of his hanse were in love with the Virgin of Aedirn, but Iorveth was in love with a memory. Discovering the night they’d made that memory together yielded him a child brought his unnatural infatuation with her back to the surface with a vengeance.
She finally washed the blood from her face and for a while after she took off her apron, she flitted nervously around the space, as if looking for something else to distract her from him.
Iorveth finally rose from the chair, slowly. He stretched his aching back as he stood up, drew his tight shoulders straight and cracked his neck as he rolled it left. Then he walked toward her, step by step, until he arrived behind her and put hands on her elbows to stop her where she stood.
“I am still here, Helti,” he pointed out, a soft laugh catching in the back of his throat.
He instantly felt her trembling, a shiver moving through her that made his hands fall slack at his sides. Leaning out to look at her, he watched her close her eyes in a yielding gesture, as though she surrendered herself in that moment to something dark and inevitable.
“I know you are still here,” she nodded, opening her eyes again and turning her head toward him. “I just don’t know why you are here.”
“Because I want to speak with you.”
She drew her lower lip between her teeth, a nervous habit he recalled from their brief time together as captor and prisoner, savior and redeemed. Sometimes while they sat in front of the fire, her shivering in the tattered remains of the sleeping gown she wore when the Scoia’tael took her captive, he would watch her reach up and tug the lip she chewed on in an absent fashion that seemed to bring her a great deal of comfort.
“Speak then, Iorveth,” she found her voice after a long silence, during which their bodies lingered so close together he could feel the warmth of her nearness, smell the subtle fragrance of her scent. Lemongrass and lilacs with just a hint of witch hazel. “I’m listening.”
In his mind he’d planned better, the entire conversation strategized to perfection, though he adlibbed many of her responses to suit his own purpose, well enough that by the time he made his way toward the door the old dwarf pointed out as hers, he realized it was probably not going to go as he planned at all.
He imagined her more open-minded and willing to hear him out, not in such a hurry to be finished with the discussion before it even started. Some part of him actually believing she’d thought of him, too, over the years. She had to have done, hadn’t she? His eyes stared back at her from the face of their child every single day, a blatant reminder of him.
The hour had been earlier in that daydream. They sat out of doors, near the stream beyond the wall, and behind them their daughter played in the grass, her laughter reaching their ears and making them smile at one another.
In Loc Muinne that fantasy lifted his dwindling spirits, distracted his mind from worries about Saskia and the end of their dream for a free Pontar Valley, but embroiled in the moment he’d been anticipating for weeks, he now felt insecure, clumsy, thick-tongued and foolish.
They had been Cedric’s family, not his. He sent her away from him, into Cedric’s care, because he had no time to protect and care for a woman. He was a soldier at constant war; she deserved better. It pained him to set her free, more than she would likely ever know, because there were no words to express the way he felt for her—his savior, his peace, his elaine feainn in a dark, terrible world.
And even though the words were difficult to form, there were so many things to say he didn’t know where to begin.
The bond between them was still there. She felt it, perhaps not as strong as he did, but he saw it in her eyes, felt it in the subtle way she’d asked him not to get himself killed just when he was about to get everything he wanted. She couldn’t possibly know the only thing he wanted was peace and the only image that came to his mind when he thought of peace now was a life with her and the child they made together.
His throat felt tight, sore as he swallowed his apprehension.
“Before I left for Loc Muinne,” he began tentatively, “Invaernewedd asked me if I was in love with her mother.”
“What?” It was her turn to share a nervous laugh, her head ducking back, shoulders turning toward him.
“She’s quite adept in the art of espionage, our daughter.” He quirked his eyebrow. “And I’ve no doubt that unless we make efforts to steer her interests in other directions, she will one day make a rather fine spy.”
“What are you talking about?”
“She repeated entire conversations she overheard between you and the taedh. Your discussions on my being in love with Saskia, as well as a few choice morsels she assembled from our more passionate discourses about my place in her life.” Her eyes widened with horror, but he quickly quelled her fear. “She does not seem to know the reason for our quarrel, but it worried her how often you cry after we argue. I account those tears to grief and loss, but she does not seem sure.”
“Your account would be correct,” there was stiffness in her voice, but she did not move to put distance between them. “For the second time in my life, I’ve lost nearly everything I cared about in the blink of an eye.”
“I’m sorry life has been so cruel to you. If I could take your pain from you…”
“Pain must be endured. Nothing takes it away but time, and even then it only fades… like one of the vatt’ghern’s scars.”
He lowered his head. It was impossible to tell how much time passed before he found his voice again. “Invaernewedd said I look at you strangely at times, and perhaps I’ve worn my heart upon my sleeve without even realizing it, but it is these looks that make her believe I am in love with her mother.”
Helti said nothing, her gaze falling from his face, toward the corner of the floor just beyond him, where it rested as she drew in a weary breath.
“And perhaps I do look at you strange whenever I am with you,” he noted, “but only because I cannot believe that after all this time simply looking at you stirs the same emotions I felt the night I set you free.”
“Please,” he held up his hand in an effort to stop her from shutting him down. “There are things I wish to say, things I thought I’d never get the chance to speak for I thought to never see you again. I know I ask much of you, and perhaps I have no right, but all I wish is for you to hear me out. If you want me to go when all is said and done, I will, but I will never walk away from her now that I know.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to walk away from her.”
“And you?” Still standing just over her shoulder, he leaned forward, tilting his head so he could see her face. “Would you ask me to walk away from you?” She started to turn, but he brought his hand up to touch her chin and drew her back, circling her body around so they stood now face to face. “I thought so often of you over the years. Always with fondness.”
“That was what you wanted from me,” she pointed out in a soft tone. She hadn’t pulled her face from him, his fingers still touching just beneath her chin. “En’ca Minne. A little love and a fond memory.”
“A memory, yes, but at times you haunted me like a ghost, Helti. Long before I knew about our child, I dreamed of you, thought of you, longed for you when the nights were long and fraught with uncertainty.”
“But why? I go against everything you stand for. I am dh’oine, a contradiction to your very beliefs.”
“You have never been dh’oine to me. There is no difference between us, and maybe that is crazy, maybe it is a contradiction to the hatred I feel inside me for your people, but when I thought of you, I did not think of the dh’oine who took a piece of me with her when she made her way to Lobinden. I thought of the woman, the way she felt in my arms, the taste of her upon my lips. I should have taken you with me when you asked to come, but it wasn’t safe for you out there.”
“I would have made due,” she said. “I’m not so fragile as you think.”
“There is nothing fragile about you at all,” he agreed, “but war is not for everyone. You are a giver of life. Out there…” He glanced toward the door, his stare lingering on the bold red paint and the shadows cast across it. “Out there all I do is take life. I would never have wanted that for you,” turning his head toward the palette beyond the partition, he couldn’t see the child, but he knew she was there, “nor for her.”
“Then what is it you want from us, Iorveth?”
“I don’t know,” shaking his head, he returned his gaze to hers. “Over the years, I questioned destiny. I could not fathom, no matter how I tried, a world in which the Aen Seidhe were meant to suffer the way we have at the hands of dh’oine. How could such a thing be fated? What did we do to deserve that fate? There are no answers, no clear reasons, but I believe now more than ever in destiny. I see its line so clearly, and it leads me straight to you. Cedric was your destiny, but so was I, just as you were mine. And if you ever doubt the bond between us, that we were destined for each other, you need look no further than our child to see it.”
Her lip was between her teeth again, dark brown eyes veiled by heavy lids that flitted across the floor as if she chased a mouse with her stare. He stepped in and ducked his head down in front of her so she had no choice but to see him.
“You gave me life,” in more ways than one. “I have felt so often dead inside, but you stirred life in me anew when you brought me back from the undying lands.” Bringing both hands up, he took her face between them. She didn’t look away, and there was no fear in her eyes, but she was trembling again. “I am not asking you to love me the way you loved Cedric. I would never wish to replace him in your heart, but…”
“What are you asking of me?”
“Only that you give me a chance.” He certainly didn’t believe he deserved as much, but he would never forgive himself if he didn’t at least try. “I want to be a part of our daughter’s life and yours. You are my family.”
“How?” she faltered, taking a step back and shaking her head. His hands slipped from her face and dropped to his sides. “How could we be a family, Iorveth? You hate my people…”
“I don’t hate you, or our child.”
“But you will never give up the fight. You’re a soldier,” she went on, her voice quivering, escalating in pitch, “leader of a great army hell bent on destroying the dh’oine. No matter what you say or what you feel for me or for your child, you couldn’t stop fighting. Not for me, not for her… Not ever. There will always be another battle, another injustice.”
She was so stubborn it infuriated him in ways nothing else ever had. How many ways did he have to tell her she was not dh’oine in his eyes? That loving her did something strange to him, making the hatred he felt for her people less palpable? Something happened to him when he met her, something the witcher brought back to the surface and shoved into his face until he had no choice but to look at it and see it for what it was. He had changed; his purpose had never been clearer.
“Yes,” he agreed, his tone surprisingly calm despite the ire her raised voice struck in him. “I am a soldier, Helti.” He held his head high. There was no shame in being a soldier or leading an army. “And there will always be another fight, as you say. I cannot stand idly by while Nilfgaard prepares to invade these lands again.”
“Nilfgaard?” she swallowed hard. The last war with Nilfgaard brought them together, a memory she undoubtedly did not find pleasant save for the child that came from it.
“Nilfgaard” a stiff nod followed the repetition. “There is nothing we can do but stand and fight and hope against all hope we are strong enough to defeat them and defend our land. And the sorceresses were up to their necks, plotting against dh’oine royals.”
“So were the Scoia’tael…”
“Everything has changed. The Scoia’tael had their part to play, that I won’t deny, but the sorceresses’ plot has everyone riled against magic. Witches, witchers, anyone with even the slightest magical inclination… Loc Muinne was riddled with dark madness and horrors the likes of which I’ve never seen, and I have seen much.”
“I… I don’t understand.”
“Dark times are upon us.” Did they ever go? He could barely remember when life was simple, when he could rest easy without the pressure of the next battle weighing on his soul. “You are a simple folk healer, one who sticks her neck out to save others who don’t always deserve it, but they won’t remember how you helped them when time comes to pass judgment. And it is for that reason my purpose has never been clearer to me. I will fight until the day I die if I must so our daughter can be free. So the mother of my child might never know cruelty or persecution. Would you deny me simply because I would give my life to make this world a better place for all of us?”
“Did it never occur to you in your quest for a better world, in your willingness to give up your life, that I can’t endure losing another man I love?”
She… loved him. Enough that thoughts of losing him brought unshed tears to her eyes and dampened her long lashes when she tried to blink them away. Or perhaps it was only fear of the future that brought those tears to her eyes.
“Your daughter cannot lose another father.”
“She will not lose me, and neither will you.”
“You can’t promise that.”
“Do you know how many times I’ve nearly died over the years?” More than he could count. He might have died at Loc Muinne, had things gone differently with that bitch sorceress, Eilhart.
“No matter how many battles you’ve won, how many times you’ve avoided death, there are no promises, Iorveth. Do you even know what we went through these last weeks? We were fraught with terror. Every single day, nothing but questions. Will he come back, Mama? Is he safe? Where do you think he is right now? Do you think he’s all right? When do soldiers stop fighting? And I don’t know how to answer because how do you tell your child her father will never stop fighting? That one day he won’t come back to her at all?”
“You tell her the truth, Helti. You tell her that her father fights in hope that one day she won’t have to.”
“But why? Why does anyone have to fight at all?”
“I wish I knew.” Iorveth closed his eye and turned his head downward. “The world is a terrible place.”
The surprising touch of her hand fell soft against his cheek. He didn’t lift his head, but nuzzled his cheek into the warm curve of her palm. The tips of her fingers swept through the loose locks of hair beside his ear, sending chills rippling through him. She couldn’t possibly know how divine her touch felt, how much it meant to him to feel her skin on his skin again after all those years.
“Aren’t you weary, Iorveth?”
“Of course I am weary, but what would you have me do? Run away? Back into the mountains like a coward? While my people stand divided, on the brink of finally taking back some of what was lost?”
“No…” she protested, the word catching in her throat, “but you will always be a soldier, and I…”
“Many soldiers have families,” he pointed out. Homes to return to when the fighting broke, women to meet them, children who missed them. “Wives lose husbands, daughters their fathers… We are at war.”
“What about the line?”
Now she seemed to just be looking for excuses, reasons to argue. It was infurating. “Damn the line…” he raised his voice. “We’ll cross it together, who cares?”
“And your hanse?” she asked, her tone cynical to the point of defiant, though what she was defying, he couldn’t guess.
“What of them?”
“How would they react if they knew you were here right now?”
“I wouldn’t care what they—”
“You would care. You are their leader, their commander…”
“If they ever discovered you had a daughter with a dh’oine, how soon before their respect for you waned?”
“How many of them have taken dh’oine over the years, with or without the woman’s permission?” he posed. “How many of them have half-blooded children they don’t even know are out there? You know what the vatt’ghern said to me when Invaernewedd was missing?” he paused, waiting for the subtle hitch of her shrugging shoulders before continuing. “I told him half-bred brats weren’t generally the interest of the Scoia’tael and he said, ‘And yet those half-bred brats are quite possibly the only children any of you might ever have.’ The self-righteous bastard.”
“He is probably right.”
A smug grin formed at his lips as he confessed in a low voice, “Maybe he is right. Maybe they should be our interest because the Aen Seidhe in Dol Blathanna bring nothing into the world. We’ve been fighting for something so long gone there are few who even remember the true nature of our cause. But maybe what we have now… Maybe this is what’s worth fighting for.”
“I just wish no one had to fight at all.”
“Would you rather die?”
“If we want to live, we must fight.” Always the fight, it never ended. Just once he wanted the life he dreamed of sometimes. A quiet house to call his own, someplace he could put up his feet. Food on the table, a woman to warm his bed and children running in and out tracking mud across the floor while he smoked his pipe and worried about silly things like crops and livestock. “For our lives, our children, for what we believe in, we must fight. Can’t you see that?”
“Yes,” her agreement was reluctant, but he could tell she understood his vision. The things he longed for, she’d already lost, not once, but twice. Her family, her home, her security.
“You asked me once if you could come with me and I denied you,” he reminded her. “Can you find it in your heart to forgive me for that mistake.”
“It wasn’t a mistake,” she said, turning her head in the direction of the wooden partition separating them from their sleeping child. “As you said, Cedric was my destiny, just as I was yours. All of us…” she drew her gaze back to him again, “… we are hers.”
Iorveth swallowed, his throat no longer so tight as it was when he’d first come into her home with so many things to say he nearly forgot how to speak.
“Where does destiny take us from here?”
“I don’t know,” she reached across the space between him and took his hand, twining her fingers together with his, “but I suppose we go there together.”
“I will protect you,” he promised. “Both of you. I’ll die for you if I must.”
“I don’t want you to die for us,” she said. “I want you to live with us.”
“Even if I have to fight?”
“It is who you are,” she offered a subtle nod, and for a moment he swore he saw the barest hint of a smile at the corners of her soft mouth. It never had chance to spread because he kissed her.
Surging forward, he cupped her face in both hands, descended into her lips and allowed all the things he’d dreamed about, the things he tried so hard to push into the deepest part of himself and forget, to rise to the surface like the sun cresting on the horizon.
Elaine cáerme. His beautiful destiny.
It was an unexpected gift when she kissed him back. There was sweetness and desperation in that kiss, trepidation and acceptance. Only a handful of months passed since she lost the love of her life, a piece of her soul taken with his passing she would feel the absence of as long as she lived. Maybe it was wrong, he didn’t know, but it felt right. She felt right, and she had since she’d held him in her arms and drawn him back from the brink of death, whispering, “Don’t be afraid. I will not let you die.”
He knew only that despite his years, life was short. Too short to waste a single moment.
His hand slid along her cheek, tangling into the loose, dangling braid of her hair and drawing her in deeper. Pulling back, he nuzzled his nose along hers, closed his eye and tilted his forehead in to rest against hers. “I know you’ll never love me the way you loved…”
She kissed him again, silencing his fears before he could finish them and whispering across his lips, “I will love you the way I love you.”
“And do you love me?”
“Yes,” she whispered.
There was another palette behind the wall on the right, tucked back away from the rest of the house and far enough that if they were quiet they wouldn’t disturb their sleeping child. He moved with her, instinctively toward it, her backward steps shuffling, eager and her hands already working buckles, fingers deftly pushing buttons through their holes to strip away the heavy leather of his armor.
Beyond the wall it was an almost frantic dance to strip away all that stood between them. His sword belt dropped to the floor in a metallic clatter, the ruckus made her wince and stiffen as she cocked her head and listened for the sound of wakeful stirring on the other side of the small house. Nothing came, and though they made great effort to quiet the sound of their hurried attempts at finding freedom and a little love together, it was impossible to be silent.
Unburdened by the weight of his armor, unencumbered by feelings he’d held inside for too long, it was as though the weight of the world lifted away as their bodies came together once more. Inside her, he felt whole. Unburdened by troubles, unafraid of the darkness that surely lay ahead.
Again, she was not dh’oine; he was not seidhe.
They were man and woman. Life Giver, Death Bringer. Balance.
Destinies entwined by forces beyond their control.
Two pieces in a puzzle so grand they couldn’t begin to imagine the scope of it. They were peace and respite from a world so dark and filled with horrors.
War, as the vatt’ghern said, was inevitable, and he knew not what would come of their family, but for the moment Iorveth knew peace and that was all that mattered.
Elder Speech in this chapter
En’ca Minne: A little love
Elaine Faeinn: Beautiful sun
Elaine Cáerme: Beautiful destiny