The stone circle near the cottage had been one of the reasons that Thora and Elspeth had picked this place to hide away in. It was a secluded area and the surrounds hardly populated. Recent sickness had dealt a heavy blow to the region and many people were scared to live or even travel through for fear of dying themselves. Such things were not a worry to Thora or Elspeth.
They had been at the abandoned cottage for four months and snow had begun to fall. Midwinter had arrived. It had been a long time since they had celebrated it together.
“We should go to the stones to celebrate the solstice,” Elspeth suggested as she peeled the potatoes. She looked up and over to Thora who was finishing seasoning the mutton.
“I think that is a wonderful idea. Are you well enough to go? I heard you coughing this morning.”
Elspeth smiled, “I shan’t catch my death out there if that is what you worry. And I promise to wear my warm cloak, mother.”
“Well, you do almost look like you could be my daughter,” Thora replied and they both laughed.
“I do think I am the older of the two of us, perhaps you were a daughter I did not realise I had given birth to,”
Thora let out a snort. “I know that is not something you could forget. Maybe it is just spending so much time together we have grown to look like each other, and I am glad that you will be a good girl and wear your cloak. You need to look after yourself.”
Elspeth nodded. While she might be ill, she could not die, death simply would not take her. That did not mean that Thora would not worry about her coming close to death once more.
No one enjoyed being ill, though, a sickness was far better than other horrors that had been visited on Elspeth. In the years since they had come to know each other in Greece as the First Age ended, Thora had tended to Elspeth many times. And if Elspeth became ill now, well, Thora would simply care for her again.
Elspeth found her heart touched by Thora’s worry. It was good to know that there were those in this world that cared for her when there were also those who wished her to know nothing but pain. It was comforting to know she was not alone in the world and had such a wonderful, powerful woman as her dearest friend.
Their midwinter feast was hearty, and it was good to have a full belly as they ventured out into the darkness. The shortest day really had been just that. Elspeth pulled her cloak tight around her as they ventured across the snow-covered fields to the stones.
Elspeth could feel the magic of the night pricking at her bones. It was a pity the magic did not seem to be doing anything to help her snivelling nose or the discomfort in her throat. At least it was not a very cold night.
When they reached the standing stones, they walked around until they found the entrance stone and passed into the centre. Lights appeared as they did and both Thora and Elspeth froze as the lights flickered and formed into lanterns. Arms appeared holding on to the lanterns and slowly whole bodies materialised. The ghosts of worshippers past had appeared within the stones.
Thora’s hand slipped into Elspeth’s and they watched the beautiful ritual unfold. The ghosts wove around each other in a powerful dance as they blessed each stone and each direction. Lights were lifted and swung around, they moved to a music that neither woman could hear.
Elspeth gasped each time a figure moved through her, she could feel a memory of their energy stir her own trapped magic. Her magic was trapped for good reason, the safety of others. But now it tingled along her bones and wanted to be free. She would not let it, no matter how strong the call might become. Who knew if she could hurt Thora? Elspeth would never take that risk.
As she stood there, fighting her magic, warmth flooded Elspeth’s body. Her vision blurred, and she cried out as she felt herself collapsing to the ground.
Thora caught Elspeth as she fell.
“Els, darling?” Thora shifted Elspeth and rested her back against one of the large stones, the glimpse into the past forgotten with her worry for her dearest friend. Thora touched Elspeth’s cheek and her hand recoiled. “You’re burning up, sweet Els. Let’s get you home.”
Thora slid her arms under Elspeth and lifted her up. Born of elements, Thora was much stronger than she appeared. Much stronger than a mortal would be. Though, it was still awkward to move through the snow, especially the deeper drifts, carrying the extra weight. Eventually, Thora got them both back across the fields and into the house.
She lay Elspeth down on the bed and freed her from her wet clothes. The cold chill from the snow soaked clothing might not be the best thing for Elspeth right now. She changed Elspeth into a nightgown and then went to stoke the fire.
Elspeth moaned and twitched in her sleep. “No, please, no. Not my son!”
Thora quickly rushed to her friend’s side as Elspeth began to wail. Her cries were so anguished. Whatever she was dreaming in her fever, it was incredibly painful to endure.
“You took my beloved and my son, did you ever think I would willingly submit to you?” Elspeth screamed the words at an unknown figure. Her eyes had come open and she struggled against Thora. “No torture you could bring to me will ever compare. And there will come a day when you will be destroyed, and I shall be there to see it. I swear it on the souls taken from me. I will have my revenge.”
Elspeth’s body went rigid and for a moment Thora thought she might lose her friend. There was no breath in her body and Thora could find no sound of a heartbeat.
“Els, no, please. Come back. Come back.” Thora shook Elspeth, she cradled her stiff body in her arms. She pressed kisses to Elspeth’s forehead as she continued to plead with her.
Hope was almost gone when Elspeth drew in a breath and screamed again. Her body flailed and then softened. The scream ended, and Elspeth went completely limp. Thora lay her back down and pressed her head to Elspeth’s chest. The heartbeat was still there, and she was breathing more evenly again.
“My poor sweet love,” Thora murmured. She brushed hair back from Elspeth’s cheek where it had been plastered down by sweat.
“Balor. No, Balor,” Elspeth murmured the name over and over.
Thora found she instantly had tears in her eyes for her friend and the losses they had both suffered for aiding that arrogant Beowulf.
“Oh, Elspeth, come back from that time, do not torture yourself.”
“Carry me home, carry me high on my shield,” Elspeth cried and rolled around, her arm struck Thora’s knee and Elspeth recoiled. “I did this to you, Herger. Let me go.”
Thora flinched at the mention of that name. The one she had lost and so quickly moved on from in the arms of another man. A man she could not resist becoming bound to. Elspeth was clearly caught in that time.
Elspeth moaned again, her breathing deeply laboured. She flinched again and again as if something was striking her. A scream ripped from her throat, her body arched, and Thora fought to keep her on the bed.
“Let me go, they’re gone, our daughters are gone. Let me go.” She wailed again.
Thora was no longer sure that Elspeth saw only her own life in this fever, perhaps nightmares plagued her. Elspeth had not had a son, nor daughters, though she had always longed for children. Children with the love that was the only one she could give herself to.
When Elspeth finally stilled, Thora got a cloth and wiped down her forehead. The fever had continued for hours, with Elspeth reliving a number of horrors from her past, as well as situations that Thora thought were imagined or were perhaps memories of someone else’s. Thora was exhausted herself, and unsure how to help Elspeth. Nothing seemed to be helping.
Elspeth’s temperature dropped rapidly after the hallucinations stopped. It dropped far below what was normal. Even with the fire roaring, the heat was doing little to warm her. Thora climbed under the blankets and hugged Elspeth close. Exhaustion took over her and she fell asleep. Neither noticed when the cottage door opened, and someone entered.
El’Arek snuck into the cottage once he was sure that Thora was asleep. He could not have anyone know he was here or what he was doing, his curse might increase ten-fold if he was found out. And he was very afraid of that happening. Petrified, in fact.
Still, there was some part of him that could not sit back right now. He was used to the guilt of watching matters unfold but today, perhaps because of the magic of Midwinter, he could not watch his sister suffer.
El’Arek moved to Elspeth’s side and laid his hands on her. It was a long time since he had done anything like this, but it was an easy power to call. He drove the sickness from her body and eased her mind from its nightmares.
Then he picked up Thora and moved her to her own bed. He kissed her lips softly. “Sleep well, love.”
He prepared a meal for them to wake up to and then he quickly departed. He could not linger, someone might know what he had done, and he feared for how he could be further cursed.
Elspeth woke up feeling tired, but better than she had the morning before. She had no memory of coming back from the standing stones and assumed she had fainted. Thora must have carried her home and looked after her again.
Elspeth got out of bed, bathed and dressed before checking on the stew that filled the cottage with its scent. It smelled wonderful. She was stirring it when Thora woke up.
“You are awake and okay,” Thora exclaimed as she rushed out of bed and hugged Elspeth. After a moment she pulled back and looked around in confusion. “Wait, how was I in bed? How long was I asleep? Should you be resting not cooking?”
Elspeth looked just as confused. “What do you mean how are you in bed? And wasn’t it you who made this stew?”
Thora shook her head and looked around the cottage. Eventually, she smiled. “I suppose this is one of those Midwinter miracles they speak about. No fruit in our stockings but I shall take stew in our pot and you healthy once more. You scared me, Els.”
Elspeth frowned. “I did? I am so sorry, Thora. Thank you for caring for me.”
“I shall always be there to care for you, Els. Come, we should eat before the stew becomes overdone.”
Elspeth nodded. The two women dished up their food and sat down as Thora explained all that had happened.
Neither woman saw the face briefly appear at the window and the smile on his face before he vanished from the place. He had done something good and it felt better than he had imagined.