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The Mandrake Child: 6. Chapter 5
- Chapter 5 -
"What was it, Sen?" whispered Cillan from her position in the bed. "I heard… noise…" A painful-looking fit of cough interrupted her but still she fought to push the words out; as though the cough was a mere nuisance that would pass like a bad dream. It left Seren torn between admiration and annoyance.
"Shh, mother, it was nothing," she soothed, holding a goblet halfway to her mother's lips. "Drink now; it is your remedy."
"It tastes awful," Cillan complained with a weak smile. "But I am sure I heard someone," she insisted, fussing with her covers. "Is it your father? Is he back?"
"No, mother. He is gone to Esgaroth, remember?" Seren peered into her mother's face and, seeing her so pale, added gently: "He will be back soon…"
But Cillan tried to sit up, agitated. "Esgaroth? Why have you not told me? It is so far away! And it is almost winter!"
"Mother!" Seren set down the goblet and pushed on her mother's shoulders, feeling the fragile bones pointing beneath the skin and melted muscle. "Mother, please, calm down. And drink!"
But yet again the goblet was pushed away, face turned away with an expression both resolute and stubborn, like that of a child. Seren felt her patience waning. She resisted, restraining her mother's hands with her left one while raising the remedy to her mouth once again. But a flailing arm impacted with her fingers; the goblet went flying to the floor, metal clanging against wood as the precious liquid trickled onto the ground and seeped between the planks.
"Damn it, mother!" she cried, dropping to her knees; her fingers groped for the cup, scraping up dirt in their haste to salvage whatever remains of the herbal tea were still left in the goblet. Then, wiping her brow in exhaustion, she added: "Father will be back soon. In the meantime, I will take care of you."
"But you are just a child!"
Cillan's eyes seemed focused on a time long past, as she reached out a trembling hand and touched Seren's cheek. "You are a brave little girl, Sen, but you are still so young…"
Seren rose and wiped her hands on her skirts, and went to make another cup of tea. There was almost none left, yet again – the remedy seemed to fade into thin air, disappearing quicker than she could follow. She upturned the satchel into the goblet, shaking it to collect the last leaves stuck in the fabric. She could hear her mother mumble under her breath, straightening the sheets and trying to fix her hair in a surge of energy driven by remembrance of a time long past. It was not a pretty sight – Cillan, once so beautiful and witty, diminished into a bony creature with feverish eyes, smiling happily as she paraded between her memories, fingering them like an old beggar counting his coins. In a way, Seren understood that such golden moments seemed preferable to the harsh reality. Her mother had an escape, an excuse that she could not allow herself to envision. In a way, Seren envied her.
"This time, please drink it. It is all that I have left."
"He should not have gone. What was he thinking, leaving me alone with a baby?" Cillan shook her head and rolled her eyes in apparent annoyance. "And I must feed poor Seren, she must be hungry!"
Seren gasped as her mother swung her legs over the edge of the bed.
"Mother, no, stay in bed!" She managed to throw the covers over Cillan's thighs, tucking them promptly back into the bed. "You are running a fever… again," she added as her hand touched her mother's forehead. "Please, drink. This will help you sleep."
"Sleep? But I cannot do that, Seren needs me!" Cillan laughed airily. "And then there is dinner to be made, Selvig will be back any time now…"
Seren's cry cut through the air; it seemed to tear through her mother's web of memories. Cillan startled and shrunk back into the bed, eyes wide with fear.
"Seren?" she asked, her voice shaky. "Seren, where are you?" Then, shivering: "I am cold…"
Seren lunged towards her mother, gathering Cillan in her arms and feeling the frail body tremble in her embrace. "Mother, I am sorry."
Cillan appeared scared now, her breath ragged, and Seren felt guilt gnaw at her. Neither the illness nor the brutal way in which Seren had been robbed of her childhood were her fault. Things had gone wrong, leaving her standing before two divergent paths. Seren had clenched her teeth and chosen duty, reminding herself in the darkest hours of the night that she could not have faced herself again if she had decided otherwise. Still, the sentiment of accomplished duty did not keep one fed or warm.
Seren caressed her mother's damp hair and breathed along with her, as though the even breaths could somehow imprint a rhythm into her mother's tired lungs. The tremors subsided soon enough, and a light hand rose to touch her cheek.
"Don't be angry with me," Cillan whispered, her face scrunched up in worry. "I know I am not a good mother now. I know you have been taking good care of me – better than a girl your age should know or care. Don't be angry with your sick mother. She is growing batty, but she loves you."
Seren gulped down a sob; that would be admitting how hard it was, seeing her mother's fall – the growing decadency of her mind, the slow waning of her strength; but she knew from Cillan's forgiving smile that she had not been fooled.
"I am not angry, mother. I am just tired, is all."
They both must have felt the lie in her words.
"We all are, darling. Nights have grown so long… It has been long since I last saw the sun. But remember what I used to tell you: do not go to sleep with your anger.
Seren nodded. She recalled happier times where she could still indulge in caprices and endure such teachings with a sour face. Now she welcomed them as a sign of remission, all the while forbidding herself to quite believe it.
"Yes, mother," she said quietly as Cillan's eyes dropped shut, probably after the satisfaction of making peace with her daughter. "I remember."
Seren shifted for the umpteenth time, the straw in her mattress crunching under her weight as though in protest. She pulled her covers higher, then pushed them away as she grew too warm; but still sleep eluded her. She had still seethed with rage when she had gone to bed, but darkness and silence had intimidated her grumbling into a silent fuming, and then the anger had faded. She was tired and longed to rest, but what was left of her ire did not let her. Its thorns poked at her, disturbing the soft numbness of slumber. And so, with the fatigue gathered during the day weighing on her shoulders, she tried to sort out her thoughts, since it seemed the only way to find some peace of mind.
The elf had, undoubtedly, sought to offend her. And he had succeeded all too well, although Seren understood that he did not know just how deep his words had cut her. Quick jabs that sprang to mind in an instant of anger; easy release from frustration and a small victory over a vexing opponent – she should know, for she had offended him first, though unwillingly. Seren felt the mocking poke of conscience in her mind: unwillingly, truly? Had she not suspected that Marian's name would be a sensitive subject? Indeed she had, but survival had to come first, before politeness or respect. She had made her decision knowing the risks; therefore she must be at least as guilty as he was.
The score thus settled, Seren turned around, seeking the most comfortable spot of the small mattress. They were quits now, weren't they? But you are sleeping on straw, under a warm cover, whispered her conscience, while the elf waits down in the cellar, in the dark, far from any living soul and further even from a friendly face. Locked up, all alone, with only the prospect of death and the memory of angry words to keep him company. His body is broken. Sorrow gnaws at his heart, Doubt and Guilt stand at his back, poised executioners of the mind.
"Do not go to sleep with your anger."
And so it was with a weary heart that she finally pushed the door open again and peered into the darkness. The cellar was silent, and not even the elf's breath could be heard, so that for an instant Seren worried that something might have happened to her prisoner. Her trembling hand holding a candle warded off the shadows as she began her descent, until the light fell upon the sitting form. The elf looked up, squinting his eyes against the light, and licked his lips.
"My name is Seren."
Her knees sank slightly into the earth as she kneeled before him, a hand on her heart but observing a cautious distance in case his anger, unlike hers, had remained fresh.
"I am sorry for what I said earlier – my words have caused you pain, I realize that. As you can see, I am young." She swept her arm to gesture at herself, a bitter smile on her lips. "Please forgive me on account of my inexperience. I want you to know that I hold no grudge against you or those of your kind; and I am sorry for Marian."
His features twisted in a grimace of pain at the mention of the name. Seren tensed, fearing that it could set him off again. Her next words were spoken in a hurry, for fear of being misunderstood and interrupted.
"I do not doubt your word, nor your honour. You are a warrior, I can see that – even though there are none like you around here. But I have to say this: you escaping my custody is a risk I cannot take. My father is the hangman of this village – it should have fallen to him to execute you. But he is gone to Esgaroth. And we – I – need the money that the mayor is prepared to offer for your death. I am ready to do what it takes to earn it. I have never killed someone, but I have to try. Out of respect for you, I will do my best." Then, noticing that she had started to wring her hands in nervousness, Seren laid them on her knees and pretended to straighten the wrinkles on her skirts. "Father taught me well," she added for herself. "I will not fail."
The elf was watching her with something akin to pity in his eyes.
"Then I am all the more sorry for my words," he said quietly. "And for having, in some way, forced you to shoulder this role. I would like to think that, had we met under different circumstances, I would have offered to help. Now all I can do is arm myself with patience and gratefulness, and walk up the planks obediently. I will not give you trouble, I promise.
His eyes sparkled suddenly as he uncrossed his legs, moving forward from his position to kneel before her, and bowed his head.
"On my honour and on Marian's name I swear this. As for my own name…"
He touched his hand to his heart, looking at Seren from under his blood-matted hair. "I am Beriadan."
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