Author's Note: The song featured in this chapter is a traditional Irish folksong, dating back to the 17th century.
It's so easy to destroy and condemn. The ones you do not understand.
- Within Temptation
Heart of the Tanglewood
I wish I was on yonder hill
'Tis there I'd sit and cry my fill
And every tear would turn a mill
Siúil, siúil, siúil a rúin
Siúil go socair agus siúil go ciúin
Sophos poked Eugenides in the ribs from where he sat next to him, crossed-legged in the dry grass. "What's this song about?" he asked in a hushed voice.
Eugenides leaned back on his elbows, careful not to put any weight on his injured wrist. His plate of dinner lay eaten next to him; his ankles crossed a safe distance away from the bonfire. He looked at Sophos considerately.
"It's about a woman separated from her lover by war."
"War..." Sophos repeated slowly, before looking away to gaze forlorn at the skies above.
Eugenides pursed his lips and observed the relaxed body language of the other villagers who circled the bonfire-lulled by the ambient crackle of the flames. He decided to ask an overdue question.
"What you told me before, Sophos..." Sophos turned to look at him. "How do you know so much about the Attolian-Eddis War?"
He shrugged. "There's things you hear if you live in the lowlands," Sophos replied ambiguously. "That's all."
It was a weak excuse, Eugenides knew, but something in Sophos's voice warned him against asking more.
One of Helen's younger sisters continued to sing.
I'll dye my petticoat, I'll dye it red
And round the world I'll beg my bread
Till I find my love alive or dead
Siúil, siúil, siúil a rúin
Siúil go socair agus siúil go ciúin
In the peace of the commons and the after-night of that Fire Festival that marked the start of sheering season, Eugenides considered the melancholy notes of SiúilARúin and the chorus in the old language. Go,MyLove the song was called.
Go where? Eugenides wondered. Go to war? Across the sea? To your death? Who would send their love to die? Who would send anyone to die?
Startled from his reverie by a shrill scream, Eugenides, Sophos, and half the villagers around the fire scrambled to their feet. Eugenides recognized the voice as one of his distant female cousins. He'd always been a fast runner, a skill developed more from necessity than sport, and he was the first to reach the skirting fields of the village.
"Breia!" Eugenides shouted, taking her shoulders as he approached her. She cowered, hugging herself in the dark.
"I saw her," she stammered, clinging to Eugenides's arms in her fear. "I saw the witch of the Tanglewood. She's real!"
Eugenides nodded gravely. "Don't I know it. Wait here," he ordered and left her to Sophos and the others running up from the village.
She couldn't have gotten far.
Eugenides was lost.
To further define his problem, he was not lost in the hopeless, foraging for berries and wrestling bears sense; he was lost in the dark.
It was hours till morning, and with nothing but the moon to guide him, every tree, every clearing, and every shallow brook looked the same. The hunting howl of a wolf pack sent a chill down his spine, and he shuddered in the cold mist. As close to winter as it was, it was unlikely he'd run into any large carnivores, but under night's cloak, it was a lot easier to believe that every bush and every shrub was a beast stalking its prey.
"Its lost, hopeless, stupid prey," he muttered under his breath. Stomping through a pile a leaves in his frustrating, he tripped over a log hidden in a tree's lunar shadow. His nose went straight into the dirt.
A voice chuckled from behind him.
Shoving the heels of his hands into the ground, Eugenides pushed himself to his feet and turned to confront the wraith or whatever spirit haunted forests in the middle of the night. He suddenly remembered only a witch roamed these moors.
"Your grace knows no bounds, does it?" she teased, coming into the teary light of the moon.
"Ah... Were you following me?" he asked stupidly.
"I believe you were following me," she said with pointed air. "If anyone has the moral high-ground, it would be the victim of the initial transgression." She had an articulate, quotable way of speaking. It reminded him of Sophos or a less annoying version of the magus.
Eugenides laughed and bending his knees, hunched himself forward to calm his racing heart. "I'm starting to get you," he said as fact. What he could see of her expression remained blank. "Why you were watching Helen that day, and why you were watching us at the Fire Festival..."
The corners of her mouth turned up, as if expecting a joke. "And what is it you... 'get'?"
"You're lonely..." he began softly. "You're so lonely, you'll stand and watch families feast and girls play with their sisters... You stand there as strong and sure as a mountain, like you need nothing from life but air and food, but... That's merely your mask, and you're so very, very afraid I'll see past it, aren't you? So afraid that I do..."
He expected heated denials and driving recriminations to come from her tongue, but she did not speak. He watched her turn and hide herself in the shadows.
"It's too late for you to find your way back home. If you can keep up, you can come with me."
He spent the next half-hour stumbling through the forest in pursuit.
Her house was smaller than his family lodge, but it was cozy and well kept. The ceiling was low and some of the crossbeams sagged, their strength compromised by the damp air of the forest.
She had a pot of hot water bubbling over the fire. She'd offered him tea, and he rubbed his sore ankles as he watched her mix herbs for the brew in the corner kitchen.
"What's your name?" he said from his chair by the fire. When she didn't respond, he tried another. "Who built this house?"
"I don't know," she answered without turning. "I imagine it was first built by a huntsman, who lived off the fruits of the forest. It was abandoned when I found it, and I had to perform quite a few repairs." She took the pot off the stove hook and set the leaves to brew before leaning against the counter. Her arms crossed.
"How did you come to live here?" Eugenides asked. "My father told me a doctor named Relius came through the ham with a female ward... Was that you?"
She snorted. "Your father remembers his name, does he? Bet he doesn't remember mine..."
"He didn't," Eugenides answered shortly. "How do you know my father?"
She returned to the tea. "We met in passing, but I know him mostly through association." She glanced over her shoulder. "It was your mother I knew well."
"My mother?" he said in surprise.
"She brought me food sometimes..." she began distantly. "Taught me how to weed a garden, which mushrooms killed flies and which I could eat with stew. I wouldn't have survived without her..." She paused. "I thought preventing her son from stumbling off a cliff was the least I could do in her memory."
"Thank you..." he said quietly. "I mean for telling me you knew my mother. I wouldn't have fallen off a cliff, you see..."
"Of course," she lied. "Hope you like lavender." She handed him a mug. He watched bits of herbs swirl about and eventually settle in the cup.
"Why did you stay?"
She sighed and taking a sip from her own mug, sat across from him in a wicker chair. "I didn't have many options. I was born a baron's daughter in Attolia. After my father died, I was married, and after my husband died... circumstances... forced me to flee. Our court doctor went with me." She smiled wistfully. "I think he was the first person to ever put my interests above his own."
Eugenides resisted to urge to clench his jaw. "Did you love him?"
She smirked. "He loved me. And I loved him... but not the type of love you mean."
Eugenides set him mug down. To hide his embarrassment, he pushed back his sleeve to rub his wrist. "What happened to him?"
Her eyes went to the bandage wrapped around his wound, and she leaned forward, gently curling her fingers around his forearm. "Did you get in a fight?" she asked.
He laughed. "You could say that. It's not as bad as it looks."
She used her fingernails to slowly peel back the bandages. "You're not as good at lying as you'd like to think you are. I have something that will reduce the swelling." She stood and walked to a shelf neatly lined with jars of dried herbs. She selected a few and began to grind them into powder.
"Are you a doctor, too?"
She shook her head. "I fancy myself a practitioner of herbalism as oppose to medicine, but I do know a thing or two about a physician's work." She poured a drop a molasses into the bowl and brought it to his side. "It will stick better this way," she explained, and she rubbed the formula into the swollen edges of the cut. Eugenides sighed. It was blissfully soothing. "Make sure you keep this clean, or it will get-"
"Wait," Eugenides interrupted, taking her wrist that held the bowl with his free hand. "You didn't answer my question." She looked him in the eye for a long moment before slowly shaking her head. When she finally spoke, she was gentle.
"There are some things you shouldn't hear from me." She stood and walked to the pump sink to rinse the bowl. "I suppose I can't make you sleep outside like a dog, and since I don't have a barn, you may use the spare blankets and the rug by the fire." She set the bowl on a shelf, before getting into bed. The old mattress platform squeaked under her weight. "Good night, Eugenides." She blew out the oil lamp by her bedside, leaving Eugenides, yet again, in the dark.
She was gone the next morning.
Waking up groggy to the damp air of morning forest and filtered light, Eugenides poked his head into the nooks of her house and took a moment in her garden. He supposed he could wait for her to come back, but he doubted he'd be greeted with more than a curt 'go home' once she walked in the gate.
He went back inside the house to get the over-shirt he'd taken off while sleeping. As he shook out his garment, a bottle fell from the pocket. A note was wrapped around the vial.
Apply this once a day or whenever the swelling grows noticeably worse. It will heal more quickly.
Keep it clean.
He smiled at the last line, and tucked the herb powder back into his pocket. Gently shutting her door and walking into the forest, he thought the Tanglewood had never looked more inviting.
"Gen!" Sophos shouted as he walked down the hill and towards the village circle. Sophos ran up to him and threw his arms around Eugenides's shoulders like he'd been gone for years. A week ago, Eugenides would have rolled his eyes and pushed Sophos away; but he laughed instead and returned the embrace.
"Miss me?" Eugenides observed dryly.
"You've been missing all night. We'd thought something had happened to you."
Eugenides made a sour face. "Just got lost in the dark. I found my way back easily enough. Don't tell me... They sent out the cavalry, didn't they?"
Sophos came to walk beside him. "Your father wanted to go and look for you right away, but the magus convinced him to wait till morning. Some of your uncles are getting ready to look for you now."
"Ugh..." Eugenides drawled. "Guess I'd better go and end the panic." He was going to break into a run, but Sophos stopped him with a sharp tug on his sleeve.
"Gen..." Eugenides narrowed his eyes. He'd never seen Sophos look so serious. "There's something you need to know."
"Let me see her." He wanted to shout and yell and throw things. He hadn't been this angry since... well... since his mother had been laid in the earth under a quiet snow.
"Eugene, you can't." His aunt said calmly, blocking his way into Helen's lodge. "You know how contagious red fever is. You could get sick too, just by touching her."
"I don't care!" Eugenides shouted and stormed inside. The magus grabbed his shoulders and pulled him back. Eugenides continued to struggle.
"Let him in," called his father's voice from a back room. The magus sighed and released his grip on the boy.
"Don't touch her," the magus warned, as Eugenides straightened his shirt and walked into the back room.
Helen lay perfectly still on a limp old mattresses, wrapped tightly in blankets. The bright red spots the sickness was named for dotted her skin in blotches. Her forehead was streaked with sweat, and his father dapped her neck with a water soaked rag. "Just like her parents," the old man sighed. "I'm glad you're safe, Eugenides."
If it wasn't for his dying, beloved cousin laying prone before him, he would of noticed his father had used his chosen name. Eugenides kneeled by Helen's bedside. He knew better than to touch her skin, but that didn't stop him from laying his palm on her cloth covered knee. He could feel the tears welling in his eyes. "How bad is the fever?"
"These are the early stages, so not too high yet. We're hoping it goes down instead of up, if it doesn't..." he left the words unsaid.
"I don't understand." Eugenides slowly shook his head. "She was fine yesterday."
His father nodded. "This plague can strike quickly; we've seen that before. I sent for a doctor from the clan city, but-"
"That could take more than a week," Eugenides interrupted, his voice low. "She might be dead by tomorrow."
His father shrugged. There was nothing to be done. Unless... Eugenides's hand went to his bandaged wrist.
"Wait, I know someone who can help." Jumping to his feet, he was about to run out the door; but his father stopped him with a word.
"Eugenides, don't. She won't help us." The headman's son froze. Turning slowly, he faced his father, eyebrows raised in confusion. "Yes, I know you've been talking to her. Just from the way you've been acting lately," observed the old man.
"You know her then, huh?"
His father nodded.
"You're wrong," Eugenides insisted. "I've only just met her, but I know she'll help."
"Eugenides..." his father began but trailed off.
He couldn't take it anymore. The unsaid words, the lies not spoken.
"Come on say it!" Eugenides practically screamed. "Why won't anyone tell me what the big secret is? What could be so bad that no one will say it out loud!"
Helen groaned and shifted in her sick bed. It was like water on fire to Eugenides's ire, and he guiltily glanced down at his cousin.
The headman wouldn't look at his son as he spoke. "He's dead, Eugenides. Murdered." Catching his breath, Eugenides mouth hung open as the headman continued. "By Helen's father."
"What? Why?" Out of all the answers he'd been expecting, that wasn't one of them.
"Helen's mother died during that plague twelve years ago, as you know. She was one of the first. During the final days, when the last of the sick were either dying or recovering, Relius's ward fell ill as well... The doctor ground together a herbal tonic, and she got better. Quickly. Too quickly some thought. Helen's father believed the doctor had let his wife die on purpose and... Well, that was the disagreement. They were fighting, and in his anger, the late headman pushed Relius, and he fell... Off the east cliff." Eugenides cringed. The east cliff was more than fifty feet high.
"Did my mother know?" asked Eugenides. His father nodded.
"Not at first, but a secret never stayed a secret around her. Before she died, she used to take food, soap, and candles to the girl in the forest. When she was out, I'd do repairs on her cottage. She probably thought it was your mother..." He smiled, but his face soon fell. "We didn't want you to live with the same guilt we've had all these years..."
Eugenides didn't know what to say to that, but to him, none of it mattered. Not anymore. Not when Helen lay on her deathbed, not when she struggled for each breath. "I'm still going. She helped me." He took the vial the witch had left him out of his pocket and handed it to his father. The old man stared at the tiny bottle pinched between his fingers as if it were a rare gem.
"She'll help Helen. I know she will." Eugenides didn't know who he was trying to convince. "I won't be long."
Eugenides spoke to no one as he ran out the door and into the street. One purpose-a sole ship in his mind. He'd rage against the ocean storm, if he had but one hope that he'd get through.