He stared at his reflection in the river, amazed that he still had not aged. He realized that even though night and day came and went he never physically changed. Neither had Fallon or Loki. They still looked young even though mentally they grew older and wiser. He did notice he looked pale and he had been sweating. His stomach often turned in knots and sometimes his body felt like he had been beaten by a giant. He did not know what was happening to him and didn’t want to worry Fallon. She and so much to do for all the knights and guards and pregnant women. He refused to add to her plate of responsibilities. He could muscle his way through this. He splashed some water on his face, cooling his hot skin. He still needed to go hunting before the day was over.
He stood, grabbing his bow and quiver. He didn’t think he could chase something down and kill it with his dagger today, an art he had perfected over the years. He breathed as he slung the quiver across his back and headed for the forest. Every step he took was more painful than the last, but he had to eat and had to bring something for Fallon since she rarely got out these days. He found rabbit droppings about halfway in and crouched low. He moved quietly, his boots making no sound. He heard rustling and pulled an arrow out of his quiver. He took aim, waiting patiently. A large black rabbit hopped out of the brush and froze, listening. He held his breath and released the arrow. It struck the rabbit in the back neck, severing its spinal cord and killing it instantly. He walked over and lifted if off the ground.
“I’m sorry, but thank you for feeding me.” He said as he yanked the arrow out and wiped it off.
He pushed himself to his feet and started out of the forest. His vision spun and he leaned against a tree, catching his breath. He took a step and was suddenly falling. His cheek was pressed into the cool grass. He tried pushing himself up, but his arms refused to work. He coughed, pain spiking through him. He heard footsteps, immediately thinking he was about to be eaten by some beast. He felt so helpless and gripped the grass in anger. His vision began to darken and before he knew it he was unconscious.
“Hern, wake up dear.” He knew that voice. “Please open your eyes.” He tried, willed himself to. His eyelids lifted and he found himself staring up into Fallon’s worried face.
“Where am I?” He asked, his body hurting from head to toe.
“You’re in my home. The First Mother brought you to me.”
“Oh no, did she do anything to me?”
“You mean touch you inappropriately?”
He nodded and winced in pain. Fallon shook her head and he was relieved. He really didn’t want to have to deal with that. She had apologized for stalking him before, but that didn’t mean she still didn’t want in his pants. He cleared his throat. It was dry. “Can I have some water?” He asked.
“Of course you can.” She disappeared from his field of vision and came back with a cup. She lifted his head and held the cup to his lips. He gulped down the coo, refreshing liquid. “How long have you been like this?” She asked as she lay his hea down and touched the back of her hand to his forehead.
“A few days. It’s worse today. Anytime I move, it feels like someone is stabbing shards of glass into my skin and bones. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” He managed to lift his arm to wipe the sweat from his face.
“Do you remember how your mother died?”
“Yeah she got sick, but I thought it wasn’t contagious. I mean you would think it would have manifested earlier. Do you think I have what she had?”
“I do and if I’m right then there is nothing I can do.”
He forced himself to set up, biting back his cry of pain. “I don’t believe that for an instant. You must have continued your research. What if someone else besides my mother and I get this? What if it’s a child?” He said and stood.
“I did, but the things I want to try are dangerous. I can’t do something to you that could kill you.” She answered.
“What do you need?”
“Hern, it could kill you.”
“Fallon, I know you love me, but honestly I could die either way. Lets try and of it kills me I promise not to haunt you.” She looked so sad and he pulled her into a hug even though it hurt to do it. She started crying and he kissed the top of her head. “I’m not giving up so you don’t give up either.”
She cried until she didn’t have anymore tears and then went to get her book of herbs. It was a thick, leather bound time that she had had way before he was born. She sat down at the table and opened it, flipping through the pages. He watched over her shoulder, recognizing everything accept the plant she stopped on. “What is that?” He asked and she frowned at the detailed drawing.
“That is called a midnight bell. They glow a bright white and have red specks. They are highly toxic and what I need to potentially save you.” She answered.
“How fast do the toxins work?”
“It can kill you on five minutes.”
“Five minutes of living or years of agonizing pain, not being able to do the things I love. I choose the five minutes. Why didn’t you bring this up when mom was sick?”
“Because I discovered them the day after she died. Fate can be so cruel.” She said guiltily and he kissed her cheek.
“I’m sorry, I don’t blame you. Where is this mysterious midnight bell.”
“On the other side of the white woods, across a river and inside a cave where moon light shines down on them through a hole in the ceiling. It will take three days to get there and in your weakened state you may not make it there and back.”
“I’ll make it, I have to. I’m not ready to die yet. Something is keeping me going. I don’t know what it is, but it says I have a long life ahead of me.”
Fallon knew what it was, had even explained to Azaiah about the young woman who would find her way into their world. He had started to prepare the castles even though Suri would not be born for a long time. She did not tell him that the beautiful young woman would be what mended the broken relationship with his son and pushed him into being king after Azaiah died.
“I’m going to make you a potion for the pain and cook you up something so you’ll have food for your journey. Just relax until then please.”
Hern sat there clutching his stomach, trying not to throw up from the pain. Every breath was like a knife in his chest. Even the feel of the bracelet around his wrist and his pants on his legs was uncomfortable. Fallon came over and made him drink some foul smelling substance. He slapped his hand over his mouth and forced himself to swallow. The pain started to let up, but never completely disappeared. She packed him some food and water along with a few bottles of the vomit inducing potion. He was to looking forward to his next dose.
“You must take one a day or you won’t be able to walk.” She explained. “I know it tastes like throw up twice baked with a side of onion, but you must drink it.”
“Yes ma’am. I will do my level best to remember.”
“There’s a good boy.”
He lifted the bag onto his shoulder and gave her a hug. He didn’t know if he would make it back or not, but he refused to express his fears. He was weak, maybe to weak to fight for his life if he had to. “I’ll be back before you know it. Keep the fire going and think of something delicious to make me for when I return. I’m sure I’ll have a very empty stomach.” He said with a smile and walked out her door. He didn’t look back, not wanting her sad face to be the last thing he saw. The white woods were not too far away. He had been there many times with his mother. Fallon’s potion allowed him to walk with minimal discomfort and kept his mind clear. He was making good time and before he knew it he was standing at the edge of the forest.
“Need some company?” He jumped at the familiar female voice and forced himself not to roll his eyes.
“Why hello Vaedra, nice to see you again.” He replied as he turned to face the deer legged woman.
“I doubt that’s true. Did the witch tell you what is wrong with you?”
“I’m dying and no I don’t want to spend my last night in your arms because this will not be my last night. If worst comes to worse I will have many months of the most agonizing pain as I slowly wither away.”
“How depressing.” He stepped into the woods and she followed. He wanted to tell her that as thankful as he was that she happened upon him, which he doubt is what happened, he really wished she would go away. He couldn’t bring himself to do it. If he died he would need someone to deliver his last words and dying wish. Who better to that than a woodland spirit who had the hots for him.
“Look you can tag along, but I’m setting some rules.” He said as he stepped over a fallen tree. “There will be no kissing, cuddling, groping, molesting, talking about sex or children. You sleep on your side of the fire and I’ll sleep on mine. If you try anything while I’m sleeping I will hurt you.”
“You think you can tell me what to do?” She asked arrogantly.
“Yes, I do.” He heard her huff and hoped she was angry enough to leave him alone. She might have said she had moved on, but he could tell by the way she eyed him that she still wanted him very badly. His feelings about her had not changed. He didn’t want her in any way, shape or form.
“Where are we going anyway?”
“To collect a flower called midnight bell.”
“Those are toxic, even inhaling the pollen could kill you.”
He shrugged. “If I want to be healthy then I have to take the chance.” They walked until lunch time and he started feeling tired. He opened his pack and pulled out an apple. He cut it in half and held one out to her. She took it gratefully and they ate in silence. She still had her deer legs and he was very glad. It made him uncomfortable when she flaunted her nudity. He grabbed the leather pouch of water and took a sip. He handed it to her and she drank a little. He rinsed off his knife and stuck it in his boot then put the water pouch back in the bag. He felt a little better now that he had something in his stomach.
They continued on until the sun began to disappear, falling behind the trees and darkening the forest. The white trees took on a silvery glow as moonlight played over their trunks. Their red flowers turned a very deep crimson, reminding him of blood. He found a spot to make camp and began clearing away any debris. He searched for large stones to make a fire pit out of. When he came back there was a pile of wood setting to the side. Vaedra sat against a tree and smiled up at him.
“Thank you.” He said, trying to be polite. He piled the stones in a circle then grabbed a bit of dry plant matter and sat it in the circle then he piled wood on top of the debris. He reached in his bag, grabbing a piece of flint then pulled his knife out of his boot. He struck it until the sparks caught the debris on fire and blew to make sure it didn’t go out. He sat down an pulled a piece a couple of pieces of jerky out of his bag and tossed a piece to Vaedra. “You should get some sleep.”
“Concerned about my well being?” She asked.
“Any traveling companion is my responsibility whether they be man or woman.”
“Have you traveled with many women?”
“I haven’t really traveled with anyone. I like being alone. It makes life simple.”
“I don’t think you mean that.” She studied his face. “Who are you waiting for?”
“No one. Well, there was a girl my mother and Fallon told me stories about. She was supposed to be beautiful and brave with a warm heart.”
“What’s her name?”
He smiled as he said, “Suri.”
“Where is she?”
“She doesn’t exist.” Vaedra laughed and he glared at her. He didn’t know why he was so angry about some fantasy girl and thought maybe it was more about the memory of his mother. “Why don’t you shut up and go to sleep?”
“A nonexistent girl, really? How can you love someone that doesn’t exist?” She ate her piece of jerky, still laughing. Hern leaned against a tree and glared at her until his eyelids became heavy. He closed his eyes and fell into a deep sleep.
Blinding, searing, stabbing pain woke him. He screamed, falling onto his side and clutch his stomach. He had not realized how much pain had been relieved by Fallon’s potion until then. It was agonizing, threatening to push him into shock. He didn’t know how his mother had held on for so long when every muscle and bone felt like it was being torn slowly from her body.
“Are you alright?” Vaedra asked.
“The bag, hand me one of the bottles.” He screamed.
She crawled quickly to his bag, pulling it open and lifting one of the bottles with a shaking hand. She pulled the top off and held it out. He grabbed it and quickly drank the disgusting liquid until the bottle was empty. He lay there, gritting his teeth until the pain started to fade away. He gasped for air and willed his heart to slow down. He was okay now. He sat up and cleared his throat.
“Thank you.” He said and closed his eyes.
“Is you sickness doing that?”
“Yes and believe it or not it gets worse. My mother suffered greatly from this disease.” He stuffed the empty bottle back in the bag. The fire was out, but he made sure there were no embers left. He stood and started walking. He wasn’t planning on stopping until he got to the cave. He should arrive there tomorrow night if his strength stayed with him. He handed Vaedra an apple as they walked and ate one himself. He was hungry for more, but he knew he could wait.
They walked through lunch time and he didn’t stop even when his stomach growled with hunger. His thoughts went to Fallon and how sad she would be if she never saw him again, to his friends and even to his father who he had spoken a single word to in years. He was sure Fallon talked to him after every visit. He didn’t think it mattered. His father would always be in his own world no matter what anyone told him. He hadn’t even come for Hern when he had left home. If he ever had children, he would make sure they knew he loved them every day. They came to a large river as the sun began to fall passed its halfway point. It was moving fast, roaring loudly as it crashed around rocks. He paced in front of it, trying to think of the best way through. The rocks were set at random and not close enough together to hop on.
“We have to wade across.” He said, finally stopping and looking at Vaedra.
“Are you insane, it’s moving far to fast.” She replied.
“Then stay here.” She huffed and he held out his hand. She took it and they waded slowly into the water. When they got to their waists, the water threatened to kick them off their feet. He pulled her deeper, the water up to the middle of his chest. She was immediately pulled off her feet and he tightened his grip. Her weight began to pull him down river. He backed toward the opposite bank. He was weaker than he thought as he fought for the bank. She began to slip out of his grip. He reached out, grabbing ahold of a large rock. He pulled her in and she clung to the rock with him. “Lets just catch our breath.” He said.
She was shivering so he started across again. They finally made it to waist deep water and he crawled out, pulling her with him. They collapsed on the bank, their lungs laboring for air. When he stopped seeing colors from lack of oxygen he pushed himself to his feet and then helped her up. She had her human legs now. He knew she must have shifted them so it would be easier to swim. She had her arms wrapped around her, teeth chattering.
“I’ll make a fire so we can rest for a moment and you can get dry.” They found a clearing and he dropped his water laden bag. He went through it, tossing out the bread. Everything else was intact. He made a a fire then sat down, his arms and legs aching from the effort it had taken to stay upright in the river.
“What about you, your pants and boots are soaked.” She said as she rubbed her arms.
He pulled off his boot and tipped them over to drain the water out of them then sat them as close to the fire as he could without singeing them. She kept looking at him and he arched his eyebrow in question. He suddenly got what she wanted and he shook his head. “I’ll be keeping my pants on, sorry to disappoint you.” He said and she glared at him. When they were finally dry he pulled his boots back on and put out the fire. He stood and grabbed his bag, continuing through the woods.
“I’ve seen naked men before. I bet your not that impressive.” She said.
“I’m sure you have and insulting my man hood isn’t going to get my pants off. Now shut up before some wild animal makes a meal out of you.”
He was satisfied when she couldn’t think of anything to say. The night was cloudy, leaving the woods almost pitch black. He had spent years honing his night vision so it was easy to see where he was stepping. For a spirit Vaedra was incredibly clumsy. She tripped and he caught her. He lifted her over a fallen tree and she wrapped her arms tightly around his neck. She moved in for a kiss and he turned his face so her lips landed on his cheek. She wrapped her legs around his waist and he lost his balance falling on the ground with her underneath him.
“Let me go right now.” He demanded as he pried at her arms.
“Come on Hern, please.” She whispered in his ear. He got her arms from around his neck and pinned her down.
“We discussed this. I don’t want you.”
“Why because of some imaginary woman?”
“Yes, because of some imaginary woman. Now, let me up or I will hit you.”
He could tell she knew he wasn’t kidding. He had never hit a woman, but for her he would make an exception. She nodded and released him so he could stand back up. He started walking again, feeling like he needed a bath. Her smell was all over him. A large cave suddenly loomed up before them, the moonlight breaking through the clouds and hitting the top of it. This was the place.
Hern moved slowly into the cave, dagger in hand. He listened for any sound indicating that a dangerous animal might be lurking within. He could see a soft glow ahead and picked up the pace a little bit. The flowers were beautiful, shining brightly on the moonlight that seeped in from the ceiling. He used his knife to dig them out, keeping the root intact so Fallon could grow them if she needed to. He placed them gently in his bag and started out of the cave. The bag was suddenly snatched off his shoulder and Vaedra ran passed him. He screamed for her to stop and gave chase.
“Vaedra give it back.” He ordered, but she just kept running. He was able to keep up because she didn’t know the land. In all her years she had not taken the time to know her home in all its complexity. He chased her until they stood before the river and the moonlight broke through the clouds, showing her anger. She dangled the bag over the raging river. “Give it back, now.”
“Kiss me, make love to me and I will give it back.” She demanded.
“No, give it back.”
“No, I’m beautiful and I’m real. I’m not some fairytale someone made up to make you happy while you grew up. I am flesh and blood and bone.”
“You know I can’t be with you. I won’t be forced into having sex with you.” He moved slowly closer, hoping she didn’t notice in her anger.
“You and I are perfect for each other. We’re both strong, our children would be powerful creatures.” She sounded like she was on the verge of tears. He was close enough now. He reached out with lightening speed, snatching the bag from her hand and then slapping her. She clutched her cheek in shock, falling to her knees and crying.
“We are not perfect for each other. You are controlling with no understanding of how love works. I could never tie myself to someone like that. Now get up. We have to cross the river again.”
They made it across easier this time because they knew what to expect. He held the bag above the water as he pulled Vaedra across with the other hand. They caught their breath and he refused to rest. He had made it to the cave early and was going to make it home early. He handed her a piece of jerky and took one for himself. They ate and dried as they walked. He pulled out the water pouch and took a big gulp then handed it to her. She sipped at it then handed it back. He was not happy with her, but he wasn’t going to let her go hungry or get dehydrated. The sun finally started to come up and he felt the pain starting. He reached into his bag and pulled out one of the potion bottles. He drank it quickly, letting as little as possible touch his tongue.
He finally had to take a break around noon. His muscles were cramping despite the potion. His stomach hurt and he felt like throwing up. It was getting worse. He could feel himself becoming drained. He had to get back in a hurry before he was to weak to walk. He stood and started walking again. Vaedra looked at him worried, but he ignored her. He didn’t need her sympathy. He was too pissed to take it anyway. He didn’t notice that he missed lunch and then finally dinner. He didn’t acknowledge the hunger or the thirst. He focused on getting to Fallon.
“Hern you need to stop and rest.” Vaedra finally said.
“Hoping I pass out and you can have your way with me?” He could hear the sarcasm in his voice and tried not to laugh at it.
“If you don’t you’ll collapse and might not get back up.” He waved her off and blocked out her voice. He was going to make it back early.
Hern didn’t remember stepping out of the woods and into the bright morning light. He didn’t remember practically crawling to Fallon’s house as pain ripped through him, making his throw up. He was sweating and chilled to the bone. He knew that wasn’t good. He banged on Fallon’s door when he made it up the hill and collapsed on the ground. His vision blurred and he couldn’t move. He heard the squeak of hinges and then a gasp. Fallon was screaming something, her familiar voice full of panic. He blinked his eyes and he was suddenly lying on his back staring up at a ceiling. He gripped the blanket covering him, his fingers cramping. It felt like someone had driven a hot knife into his belly.
“Make yourself helpful and wipe his face with this.” Fallon said. Vaedra hovered into view and he gave an exasperated sigh.
“Why are you in here? Shouldn’t you be out molesting some innocent young man?” He asked and another wave of pain came crashing through him.
“Just be quiet okay.” She ran a cool, wet rag over his face, wiping away the sweat and dirt.
“Stop stalking me and we’ve got a deal.”
“I’m sorry I took your bag. It was childish of me. I wasn’t thinking straight.”
“Don’t you mean you weren’t thinking at all. I mean not even a little.”
She frowned and then folded the rag and sat it on his forehead. “You have a way of making a woman lose all logical thoughts. You have those eyes and this body. They easily distract and entice.”
“Maybe I should start wearing a shirt.” He screamed in agony and she shushed him, told him it was going to be okay.
“The witch is making the brew you need to get better.”
“She’s not a witch and that brew could kill me in five minutes. We’ll see what happens and hope it eats the disease instead of killing me.” She walked away and he could hear her talking to Fallon. He didn’t know what they were talking about, but they both sounded worried. They both came to his bed and Fallon ordered Vaedra to lift his head.
“Now listen to me honey. This is toxic so it’s going to hurt more than anything you have ever known. It might cause you to seize. I want you to try and remain calm.” Fallon said and he whispered okay. She held the small bowl up to his lips. The liquid was powerfully sweet and he guessed that was how the flower got people to eat it. He drank every last drop and then Vaedra lay his head back down. They waited and he felt a searing heat in his stomach. It moved up his torso and down his legs, making his feel like he was being stabbed everywhere. His body started to shake and then he seized just like Fallon said. He forced himself to stay calm, retreating to that place in his mind where the memory of his mother was. The seizures were painful and seemed to last ages. His body finally calmed down, leaving him exhausted. He slipped into unconsciousness and wondered if he was dying.
He woke to the feeling of sun playing over his bare chest. He forced his eyes to open and groaned with pain. He heard someone walking quickly toward him and Fallon’s worried face hovered into view. “Oh thank heavens you’re awake.” She said and touched her hand to his forehead.
“How long was I out?” He whispered.
“Two days. I was so worried you were going to die. Loki came by and so did Rain and your father. He didn’t stay for long, but wanted to know when you were in the clear.”
“I’m sure he did. Tell him I’m fine and it was nice of him to check on me. Tell Loki and Rain to come to the river some time.”
She sighed, but said no more about Azaiah. “Would you like some water?”
“Please and thank you.” She left and returned with a cup of cold water. He sat up slowly, happy when he didn’t feel anything but slight muscle cramps. He drank it in one gulp and thanked her again. “Is that crazy deer woman still around?”
“She’s at the bottom of the hill. She said you slapped her.”
“She was threatening to throw my bag in the river if I didn’t have sex with her so I took the bag back and slapped her. I think it got my point across.”
“She wants to talk with you. No time like the present.”
He huffed, but got out of bed anyway. He walked a little unsteadily out the front door and down the hill. He sat down next to her and she turned to look at him. “What did you want to talk about?” He asked as he stared into the distance.
“How sorry I am for threatening to throw away your cure. What I did was unacceptable and I am ashamed. I am the First Mother and here I am acting like a lovesick teen. Like I said a long time ago, no one has ever denied me anything. If I wanted a man he came to me willingly and was willing to do whatever it took to make me happy. You are the first to say no.” She answered, fidgeting nervously.
“I’ll always say no Vaedra. Nothing you say or do will change that. I mean it, don’t ever touch me again. It is disgusting and very unlady like.”
“I understand. Can we still be friends?”
“I don’t know yet, but I’ll be sure to tell you when I decide.”
She nodded and stood. He watched her walk away and didn’t call her back. He knew that’s what she expected, but he wanted her gone. He waited until she was gone before going back inside. He sat down at the table and Fallon brought him some stew. “How did it go?” She asked.
“Good I hope. Thank you for saving my life.” He said and she teared up.
“Thank you for staying alive.” He smiled, promising himself he would never give up no matter what was thrown his way. He promised Fallon, he promised himself, but most of all he promised his mother. She and never given up, had fought till the bitter end and he was willing to do the same.