Chapter 2 – Mila

I chose an alternate route back to my cave—my home— that was longer, but provided more cover. It also turned out to be thornier than I remembered. After drawing blood for the third time, I had ample reason to regret my unnecessary caution.

A twig snapped nearby, freezing me in place. Perhaps an animal, or a broken tree branch falling to the ground? The smoke from the village still seared my nostrils, although the shifting wind had lessened it. If an elf were nearby, would it be enough to hide my scent?

I waited motionless, not daring to move away from the thorns crowding my waist. 

The forest was eerily silent. No more snapping twigs, but no more bird song either. I waited. I wouldn’t move until the birds did. Something was prowling. Was I wrong? Did they know about me after all?

A surprised shout shattered the stillness, followed by a growl of anger. Thorns clawed my clothes and tore my skin as I fell to the ground, instinctively making myself as small as possible. More grunts, thumps, and groans crackled through the underbrush and I flinched against each one.

The sounds were too close, too violent, to be anything but hand-to-hand combat. Who could it be except the elves? But who would be fighting them? 

A particularly loud THWACK, and a man’s voice gasped, “Run, Mila! Hide! Elves!” His voice was hoarse, like it took great effort to shout. 

A whimper escaped my throat. That voice—the ghost of a memory edged my awareness, but was tumbled aside by more questions. 

He called my name. Did he know I was here? Could he see me? I couldn’t see him through the thick brush. But why else shout a warning? 

My world narrowed to sounds of two bodies colliding, over and over again, as if it had always been this way and always would be. I just want it to be over. The vicious sounds left no doubt that I would not stand a chance if I were found. How did the elves find me?

I risked enough movement to cover my ears with my hands, but couldn’t block it out. In my minds eye, I saw the combatants fall hard to the ground, tussling amongst the dead leaves. Grunts of pain punctuated every movement, forcing their way into my consciousness. 

Then, all at once, it was over. Only the heavy panting of the apparent victor filled the silence.

I waited, face pressed into the damp earth. I tasted blood and realized I had bit my lip, yet another distracting injury that would need tending. Can elves smell blood like other predators do? 

I didn’t move, despite the warning to run. I wouldn’t move until I felt safe. 

I didn’t think I would ever feel safe again.

More rustling, but slower and quieter. A different male voice spoke this time, and not in Common Tongue, either. “Firith’quen,” he said in a tight voice. 

Elvish. My blood ran cold. 

Rowana had taught me Elvish; it had been the language of her childhood. I suspected she did it more out of nostalgia than any other reason. As a result, I understood the language fairly well, although my speaking skills left much to be desired. I had not practiced since she died, but translated his words to mean something like, “Good riddance.”

It must be an elf. And he had killed somebody I’d known. Was the man with the familiar voice another villager? He must have been; those were the only people I knew. But who? Which one? My stubborn mind refused to focus on anything except the invisible scene beyond the brush, on anything beyond the elf who had killed my mysterious ally.

My hands clenched tightly into fists, muscles tense, and I was about to give myself away when the elf let out a pained groan, interrupted by several ragged gasps. 

Had he been injured? Did he need help? No—I reminded myself that I hoped he had been injured. His death would be a justice. 

Thump, drag. Thump, drag. The elf moved away from me, in the direction of the stream. 

I let out a careful breath, only now realizing the foolishness of what I’d been about to do. It didn’t matter if he was injured or not, I wouldn’t stand a chance against him in a fight. Foolishness.

The birds resumed their singing as though nothing had happened. Or perhaps they had never stopped in the first place, and I simply noticed them again. The normalcy of their chatter strengthened my courage, and I raised myself to trembling knees. 

What to do now? My cup of tea was irrelevant compared to what waited on the other side of the brush. Was he already dead, or only injured? As a Healer, I could never turn away from someone who needed me—all life was valuable. 

I sucked in a breath and pushed through the underbrush. It was impossible to remain quiet, and I ignored the snags and scratches tearing at me, trying to hold me back. How did someone know to find me here? Nobody ever came foraging with me anymore, except occasionally my sister. Had she told someone how to find me? 

My knees were damp and sore, my bare arms criss crossed with shallow red scratches. The once comforting chorus of bird and insect sound already felt strangely surreal and out of place. I was light-headed, nerves on edge, straining to see what awaited me in the clearing—but in order to clearly see, I would need to reveal myself. 

I pushed the final way through, tearing a hole in my pants. 

The man’s prone body lay unmoving in the clearing. He wore everyday work clothes, covered in ash and soot and blood, confirming the obstacles he’d overcome simply to be here. His shoulder length black hair fell carelessly across his face as if he were asleep.

That hair… A choked sob escaped as the ghost of a memory slammed into my awareness. 

How many times had I watched him lie beside me in that same position? How many times had I admired those silky, tousled strands while we rested together after making love?

I scrambled forward, elves forgotten, needing to know if Jude still lived. My Healer’s instincts knew, even before I reached him, that he did not. 

I stumbled to a stop beside him, still on my knees, not able to catch my breath, and yet not able to pause as my need to heave him onto his back and assess his wounds overtook me. 

The gruesome gash streaking across his abdomen left no doubt he was well and truly dead. And it was my fault he had died. He had come here for me. That was why he had shouted the warning. 

I’d forgotten he knew this place. I’d brought him here myself many times during the months after Rowana and my brothers died. We’d hadn’t spent much time foraging, preferring to explore each others bodies and discover precisely which touches brought the loudest cries of pleasure. It was exactly what I had needed to distract my grieving soul that summer. 

But once he started hinting at marriage, I ended our relationship. Jude was a good man, and I knew I couldn’t give him what he wanted. He had tried to deny it, had argued that we could make it work. But healers never make good wives; we are too necessary in the community to prioritize our own families. And he deserved better. 

When he realized he couldn’t persuade me, we parted as awkward friends. There were the occasional wistful smiles or mumbled greetings when I had reason to visit his family’s smithy, or when one of his family members needed a healer. That was all.

And now I discover that after more than five years, I was still the first and last thought on his mind. 

I pressed my lips hard against his rough knuckles. “I’m so sorry,  Jude,” I whispered, reminded of how warm his hands had once been. I could still feel the warmth of my blacksmith lover’s fingers as they danced across my skin. It wasn’t fair that they were already cooling now. My tears felt overly hot in comparison.

“Why did you come to me, Jude, when you could have saved yourself and run for Braemar? Why?” There was only one obvious conclusion, although it was still difficult for me to believe. After everything I’d already seen and learned today, it seemed unfair that  this would be the realization that made me light-headed. 

Am I the reason Jude never married? Did he still love me after all this time, even after I ended things? I shook my head, regretting the movement when it made the world spin. 

Deep breaths, deep breaths. Had he died because he still loved me? The thought made me angry.

Rowana had always claimed love and mercy would end the Elven conflict; it had been my brothers’ rallying cry when they joined forces with the rebel elves. But in both cases, love had only transformed into death. 

War snuffed out love. How had Rowana ever convinced me to believe otherwise?

A pained cry startled me and I dropped Jude’s hand, heart racing as I quickly scanned the clearing. The sound had come from the direction of the stream, the same path I thought the elf had went. No new elven warriors surrounded me, and the elf himself hadn’t returned.

The elf who killed Jude must be injured. 

I wasn’t sure how to feel about that. Yesterday’s Mila would have rushed to his aid, eager to show mercy in the hopes of building a bridge between his people and mine by helping him. 

But today’s Mila? Today’s Mila was tired, perhaps too tired to want to help. I never would have thought that possible.

The pained cry of the elf repeated, this time ending in a long moan. I swallowed hard, hands tightening into fists. 

If I did nothing he might die. Maybe I wanted that to happen. 

DID I want him to die? I didn’t believe an honest answer would reflect well on me right now. 

Self-accusation gathered like pain behind my eyes as they absently wandered my surroundings. What kind of Healer WANTS someone to die?

A glint of sunlight reflected off the ground, drawing my eyes. Something lay half-hidden beneath the leaves just beyond Jude’s fallen body. 

I stood, compulsively drawn to it like a magpie to a shiny treasure, but without the accompanying excitement. 

A few half-hearted kicks at the leaves revealed a short sword, likely one of the few that Jude had ever made. He and his father mostly created farming implements and hunting tools. We had never before needed weapons of war.

I picked up the sword. It was heavier than I expected, with little in the way of decoration. I examined the edge, not surprised to find blood. 

I froze—no, not blood. Something else coated the sword; something potentially much more dangerous. 

I laid it down, mind suddenly as sharp as the weapon before me. I didn’t want that sword touching any of the many of cuts and scratches I’d accumulated. It would mean a swift and painful death.

I leaned over to examine it more carefully. The coating was dark brown with a faint greenish tint. I recognized it because I had watched Rowana make it several years ago. 

Wardbloom root poison. 

It was a common herb that transformed into a quick and painful death when introduced to the bloodstream. When taken orally, it was not nearly so deadly, but had the additional ability to decrease magical strength in elves. 

“Where did you get the poison, Jude?” Evidently, Rowana’s insistence on love being the answer ended on the battlefield. As far as I knew, the only time she had ever made a batch of poison was for my brothers to take with them when they went to war. And now I was discovering that Jude must’ve kept a vial, too, and saved it for just such an occasion. 

The poison hadn’t saved him, though, in the end. But it may have saved me. 

I looked down at Jude. His vacant eyes stared accusingly towards the intermittent cries of his killer. The sword discovery had distracted me from noticing the sounds, but they clearly indicated worsening pain. Had Jude poisoned the elf? It was possible, even for an untrained fighter like him; it only would have taken a scratch. 

Defaulting to my years of Healer training, I re-assessed Jude’s abdominal wound for any signs of wardbloom root poisoning. I had no idea what those signs would look like; my experience was limited to healing people, not poisoning them, and Rowana had been uncharacteristically tight-lipped when it came to explaining the details of wardbloom. But as far as I could tell, Jude’s wound looked like any other deadly laceration. I didn’t think it was poisoned. 

I chewed my bottom lip and winced, remembering I’d already drawn blood there once today. The metallic flavor filled my mouth as I considered my options, no longer able to tune out the unnatural addition to the forest sounds. 

The injured elf’s cries unsettled me with their intensity, as if a tormented wildcat were pacing underneath my skin as I listened. If the presence of Jude’s poisoned blade was any indication, those sounds were his death wails. 

It was difficult to think.

I hated suffering of any kind. It was only tolerable when I could do something to help. Rowana had often admonished me that a Healer must learn to stare into the face of suffering, even when there was nothing to be done, and simply be. I was more inclined to figuratively run in the opposite direction. 

I think that was why, when Mrs. Plinter had been wasting away from a painful illness that none of our usual treatments could help with, I had done what Rowana refused to do. Mrs. Plinter had begged us to ease her death, but Rowana wouldn’t. She said it was never our place to send a soul to Mother Mountain’s final embrace. We weren’t the ones to make those decisions. 

But I couldn’t bear to watch Mrs. Plinter suffer, not when we couldn’t even relieve her pain. So that night, I added something extra to her evening medicine, and she simply never woke up. Rowana didn’t ask any questions about her sudden death, and I never told her my part in it. But I think she knew.

I turned, avoiding both the memory and Jude’s dead stare, back stiff with guilt. Jude was safely in Mother Mountain’s final embrace, beyond any help I could offer. But the elf—did elves also return to Mother Mountain when they died, same as us? Or did their spirits go elsewhere? I didn’t know. 

Either way, wardbloom root poisoning was a painful death, and based on the moaning, this elf was already in the throes of it. Would it be too much of a kindness to decrease his pain by hastening his death? It seemed more than he deserved for killing Jude.

But it would be as much a kindness to myself as it would be to him, giving me something to do in the face of suffering—even the suffering of an enemy. The tormented wildcat under my skin wouldn’t stop pacing until this was ended. 

The result would be the same. He would die. And I could help us both by sending him off to Mother Mountain’s final embrace. 

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