For one horrifying moment, Lowen believed her grandmother had died in front of her. Her head was resting at an awkward angle against the back of the chair and the bitterblue that had been frothing from her mouth mere moments ago was already beginning to dry to an indigo crust in the deep lines framing her mouth.
It was only when the old woman’s hands began to twitch on her lap that Lowen was able to rouse herself from her shock. She stood to cast about the room for some water, soaking the handkerchief still clutched tightly in her hand when she found a bucket standing in a corner. Hurrying back to her grandmother, Lowen wiped away as much of the slick blue staining the old woman’s face as she could, tenderly cleansing her eyes and around her nose where inky tears had run in twin rivulets to join the mess at her mouth. Lowen knew she now had no choice but to fetch her mother and she did not want her to see Koth Cowen in such a state. Finally satisfied she had done all she could, Lowen spread a woolen blanket across her grandmother’s knees and rushed from the hut.
Head down, eyes unseeing, Lowen was thinking only of reaching Kerra as quickly as she could. When the hushed voice called her name from the tree line, at first she did not hear it.
“Lowen. Lowen, please stop.”
A ripple of panic flared in Lowen’s chest when she recognised the voice. It was alien here, so out of place that for one disorientating moment, it felt as though reality had shifted into a dream.
“Nicanor?” She stopped and turned on her heel, gaze sweeping the trees crowded around Koth Conwen’s hut. Nicanor could not be here, so close to the Scrat village. It was impossible. Yet there he was. With a sharp intake of breath, Lowen saw the satyr’s horns protruding from beneath the heavy boughs of a sweeping beech tree. He was standing in the sun-dappled shadows, silently pleading with her to go to him.
“No,” Lowen breathed. She felt terribly torn. Her grandmother may be dying but she could not bring her mother here, not now that her satyr lover had materialised in the heart of the Wild Scrat Grounds. She had never witnessed an execution. It was not an act the Scrat practised but she knew the satyr had done such things in the past when a transgression was so great it could not be borne. She also knew that whether or not her mother agreed with the punishment, she would feel she had no choice but to inform Pyros of any satyr found lurking in Scrat territory. Nicanor was openly risking his life.
Pushing all further thought aside, Lowen blew out the breath she had been holding and crossed back towards her grandmother’s hut.
“Have you turned fool?” she hissed when she reached Nicanor. “You shouldn’t be here.” She placed both hands on his broad chest and pushed him back into the trees. He could easily have resisted but he allowed her to propel him backward, only stopping once his back was pressed against the yellowing trunk of the beech tree.
“I was careful,” he said, gently removing Lowen’s hands from his chest. He tried to hold onto them but she snatched them away. “There is no one nearby.”
“You have to leave,” Lowen said. “You must go. Right now.”
“I know we did not last part on good terms,” Nicanor began. His words were measured and careful, as though he had rehearsed them. “I came to beg for your forgiveness. Lowen, I—“
“No, this is neither the time nor the place to discuss what has happened,” Lowen insisted. Nicanor looked confused and slightly hurt. “My grandmother has the blue sickness,” she snapped, her voice louder than she wanted it to be. “I must fetch my mother immediately and when she comes, you cannot be here.”
“The blue sickness?” Nicanor’s eyes widened. “I have seen such a thing many times. Please, let me help.”
Lowen hesitated. Her breath was shallow and her heart was beating painfully fast, yet Nicanor was a calm beacon, familiar and reassuring even after the bitterness of their last encounter. “You are certain you know how to help?” she finally asked him. “This is my grandmother’s life we are discussing. She cannot die. I need her.”
Nicanor reached to touch Lowen’s face, cupped fingertips briefly brushing the soft arch of her cheekbone. “I understand, little firefly. I would not offer my help if I was not sure I could actually do some good.”
Lowen nodded her agreement, biting her bottom lip to keep it from trembling. A black worry for her grandmother was snaking its way through her chest, winding about her ribs like a tightening vice.
“I need some kostawort,” Nicanor said. “It’s the small yellow flower that grows beneath the thornapple tree. Do you have any?”
A fresh bloom of panic. “No, I haven’t seen Grandmother use that particular flower.” Lowen turned away from the frankly dizzying sight of Nicanor standing beneath the trees so close to her home. She looked up at the sky as she tried to clear her head, a pale morning blue strung with cobweb clouds.
“I will search for the kostawort,” she decided. “You must not be discovered, which you most certainly will be if you start digging about for plants. Take this path to the small hut beside the herb garden. My grandmother is within.”
“I will tend to her as though she were my own kin,” Nicanor promised. Despite the urgency of the situation, Lowen found herself searching his face for the awful distant expression she had last seen etched upon it. Her heart lifted slightly when she saw that all trace of it was gone.
“I know you will,” she whispered.
She watched Nicanor pick his careful way along the narrow path edged with clumps of pink and white woodland daisies. He was treading as lightly as he could manage with hooves twice the size of a large horse, mindful not to leave behind any incriminating prints.
As he disappeared behind a tree, Lowen wondered what her grandmother would make of a strange satyr towering above her if she happened to rouse. Once the old woman realised he meant her no harm, she would probably be delighted. The thought pulled the coil of fear and worry tighter across her ribcage and Lowen slipped from the shelter of the beech tree, half-running towards the grove of thornapples she knew grew a short distance away.