Lowen found the thornapple trees quickly, windblown and stunted on the slopes of a bald-topped hill. They were in full blossom and as the morning breeze rustled against their thorny branches, the pungent, meaty stench of the neat white flowers wafted down to her. Lowen wrinkled her nose and strode towards them, bending to search for the creamy yellow petals of the sheltered kostawort.
There were just a handful of small plants at that time of year and she breathed a grateful sigh of relief when she saw them, huddled against the knotted roots of the thornapple like stowaways hiding on a particularly large and ugly ship. A handful was all she needed. Reaching beneath the overhanging branches of the tree, Lowen pulled the determined plants free from their moorings. She almost fell over backward as they left the earth they had been clinging to in a spray of soil and thin, delicate roots. Struggling to keep her balance, Lowen failed to notice a thornapple branch swing back towards her, scratching a long red line down one side of her neck. She grunted with pain but ignored it, straightening to sprint back to the hut with the precious kostawort clutched tightly to her chest.
Lowen slowed as she reached the trembling curtain of feathers and beads that marked the threshold of Koth Conwen’s home, suddenly fearful of what she would find inside. She pulled aside the softly tinkling beads, relieved to find her grandmother had yet to succumb to the blue sickness. Although her face was pale as parchment and her blue-rimed eyes had rolled back in her head, her chest was still softly rising and falling, her clawed hands still twitching sporadically on the blanket draped across her knees. Nicanor sat beside her, a giant on a tiny stool he had placed beside her chair. He was holding one of her hands and peering into her face.
“Nicanor,” Lowen whispered as she let the curtain fall back into place behind her. “I have the kostawort.”
“That is good,” Nicanor replied without turning. “I believe her condition is very grave indeed. We must hurry.”
Conwen shuddered, trembling even beneath the warmth of the thick woollen blanket. Her eyes refocused and she lifted her free hand to grope at the air. “Gwyrdmet,” she whispered, her voice harsh and rasping. “Find the Green King. Protect the Gift.” With a final gasp, her hand dropped back to her lap. Her eyes fluttered and closed. Lowen held her breath, frozen where she stood until her grandmother’s chest began to rise and fall again, her laboured breathing becoming a low wheeze.
“That’s the second time she has said those words,” Nicanor said. “What does it mean?”
Lowen knew very well what it meant but they had no time to discuss age-old wars and ancient fears. “I will attempt to explain it,” she said. “But first, please help me save my grandmother.”
Nicanor nodded and rose from the stool. At his full height, his horns almost brushed the beams of the ceiling. He made everything in the hut seem small by comparison, as though Conwen’s table still set for tea, her rocking chairs padded with faded cushions, even the blackened cauldron simmering with the last of the bitterblue, were mere children’s playthings.
A rustling of wings alerted Lowen to Odelin’s presence on the edge of the table. The bird seemed to be guarding Conwen whilst coolly preening one long, outstretched wing.
“Go and keep watch, Odelin,” Lowen instructed. “Tell us if anyone comes near.” The magpie flew up into the air at once, darting through the small gap of the open window with practised ease.
“Quickly,” Nicanor said, “we must grind the petals of the kostawort into a paste. We will also need a small quantity of moon mallow seeds and some bark of the shiver tree.”
Lowen quickly cleared an area on the table for the ancient clay bowl and matching cudgel her grandmother used as a mortar and pestle, the implements so well used the bottom of the bowl had been ground black and glassy. Then she turned her attention to a squat, black chest beneath the window, lifting the heavy lid and rifling through the many vials and bottles stacked inside as she searched for the seeds and the tree bark. While she busied herself, Lowen tried not to look at Koth Conwen. That was not her grandmother lying sprawled in the chair; it was some blue-tinged, claw-handed stranger the sight of which made the back of her neck feel clammy and the breath catch in her throat.
“Find the Green King,” Conwen wheezed again, finally forcing Lowen to look at her. “Find Gwyrdmet.” Her voice was lower this time, dwindling to a harsh rumble in her throat. The old woman shuddered and fell back against her chair once more.
“She is becoming weaker,” Nicanor said.
He took the pouch of bark and the packet of mallow seeds from Lowen’s hands and carefully poured them into the bowl to join the petals he had stripped from the kostawort. As he picked up the pestle and began to grind the mixture to a sticky mush, Lowen dragged her gaze away from her grandmother to watch him. He was grinding the paste with a confident, steady motion, intensely focused on his task.
“You must have done this many times,” she said, struggling to keep her gaze from wandering back to Conwen. She reached for one of the old woman’s flexing hands without turning her head, forcing herself to hold it even as the cold grasp of her fingers, the skin dry and brittle as summer grass, prompted a roll of nausea to unfurl from her stomach. This is my grandmother, Lowen reminded herself. The woman with whom I have shared tea every day since I was old enough to drink from a cup. She took a deep breath, exhaling long and low through her mouth. Still, she kept her eyes fixed on Nicanor.
“All satyr are taught a certain amount of herb craft,” he was saying. “Once we come of age we are expected to spend longer periods of time alone in the forest.”
“Why is that? I thought the Satyr Nation always hunted in groups, as we do.”
“That is correct. The time spent alone is not a time in which we hunt. It is a time devoted to becoming deeply familiar with the forest, a time to reflect and begin to understand the many rhythms of Nymed. In such a situation, when you are miles from your tribe, perhaps lost for a time until Mother Nymed shows you the path once more, a knowledge of herb craft can save your life. It would be foolish to die from an infected cut in the dark of the Deep Forest for want of a crushed yarrow leaf.”
“Would it not be easier to simply take those remedies with you?”
Nicanor shook his head, a small smile on his lips. “Committing to the Deep Time requires leaving the tribe with no possessions. No tools, no food. We trust that Mother Nymed will protect us and guide us to what we need.”
“It sounds beautiful,” Lowen said. She imagined being alone in the cool of the Deep Forest, surrounded only by the musical calls of birds and the sound of the wind in the trees. “Peaceful.”
Lowen began to wonder what else she had yet to learn about Nicanor and the Satyr Nation. Herb lore was something she had not known they had in common and the thought was disheartening. She had believed they knew each other intimately. She wanted to question him further but Nicanor was already straightening, the crude pestle laid to rest beside the bowl.
“Could you please remove the cauldron so I might stoke the fire?” he said. “The mixture must be heated.”
They found another, smaller cauldron half-hidden beneath the table, ringed with dust and full of dried poppy heads. Lowen scooped them out into a small pile on the floor and wiped the pot clean with a cloth.
“Hold it steady,” Nicanor said. He hefted the heavy clay bowl from the table, stooping awkwardly in the small space to scrape the sticky goo into the cauldron. It fell slowly, like thick honey. A pale, mottled cream the colour of dead flesh. The mixture began to sputter and smoke as soon as it touched the hot bottom of the cauldron hanging suspended above the fire. It smelt vaguely of spice and rancid, clotting milk.
“The Gift,” Conwen roused herself again. “Protect the Gift. Gwyrdmet.”
“Hush, Grandmother,” Lowen said, bracing herself as she crouched before the rocking chair. Her eyes were flickering back and forth and her pale dry tongue darted from her mouth, attempting to wet her cracked lips. Lowen gingerly stroked her right temple in an effort to soothe her. “You will soon be well.”
Behind her, Nicanor had found a wooden spoon and scooped up a mouthful of the spicy, pale-flesh elixir. He passed it to Lowen who wasted no time in offering it to her grandmother. The old woman’s nose wrinkled and she turned her head away.
“Please, Grandmother,” Lowen urged. “You must drink this.” When Conwen still refused to open her mouth, Lowen leaned closer, her voice dropping to a whisper. “You must drink this so you can help me find Gwyrdmet.”
At this, the old woman’s eyes flickered again and she finally opened her mouth, allowing Lowen to place the spoon inside. For a moment she thought her grandmother was not going to swallow the concoction, but she did, grimacing as it passed thickly down her throat.
Conwen lapsed back into a shallow sleep and Lowen waited for a few minutes, anxiously scanning her face for any sign of change, before looking up at Nicanor. “What should we do now? Is it working?”
The stiff look of concern on the satyr’s face made the cold fear fluttering in Lowen’s chest drop into her stomach. “We have done all we can,” he said. “We can only wait and see what fate has planned for her.”
Lowen stood slowly, feeling hot and sick.
“Remain brave, little firefly,” Nicanor said. He placed his hands on her shoulders and drew her towards him, enveloping her against the warm, fragrant bulk of his chest. Lowen closed her eyes, feeling her breath begin to steady.
“I worried you would abandon me,” she murmured. “I thought I was alone.”
“You will never be alone so long as I draw breath,” Nicanor said, holding her tighter. “I risked capture in the Wild Scrat Grounds because I had to apologise to you. I could not be sorrier for the way I reacted. I am ashamed of myself.”
Lowen began to reply but Nicanor continued, his words falling in a rush. “I have thought of little else these past two days and the conclusion I keep returning to is this: I love you. I love you and our child is a miracle. I’ll run away with you if that is best. I will beg a witch to disguise my horns, I’ll brave the world beyond this forest—”
“Don’t run away just yet,” a sharp, croaky voice interjected. “I am in desperate need of some water to wash that disgusting taste from my mouth.”
“Grandmother,” Lowen cried, turning from Nicanor to see Koth Conwen sitting up in her chair, her eyes clear and a flush of colour rising in her cheeks. She rushed to kneel before her.
“I will fetch water,” Nicanor said.
Conwen did not appear to notice him at first. She gazed down at Lowen, lifting one shaking hand to brush a piece of hair back behind her left ear. “I am sorry for scaring you, Lowen,” she said. “I am a foolish woman. I swam too far into the blue depths this time. I almost didn’t find my way back.”
“But you did,” Lowen beamed. “Do not feel foolish, all is well.”
Nicanor returned with a small cup of fresh water and as Conwen took it and raised it to her lips, she stared up at him, her eyes wide and shining. She drained the cup before handing it back, silently asking for more. He obliged and after gulping down half the second cup in one long swallow, she smiled broadly, displaying teeth stained a ghostly blue.
“Do I have this strapping young man to thank for my recovery, Lowen?” she asked her granddaughter without taking her eyes from the satyr. “The elixir tasted horribly fresh and I know I haven’t yet shown you how to make it.”
“You do, indeed,” Lowen said, rising to stand beside him. He looked slightly nervous and was blinking rapidly. “Grandmother, this is Nicanor.”
“I am extremely pleased to meet you, Nicanor,” Conwen said, the grin never leaving her face.
“And I you,” the satyr said quickly.
“How lucky I am your people have taught you some measure of herb lore. I obviously failed to inform my granddaughter that I have a small bottle of the very same foul tasting elixir stashed away beneath my bedroll, kept just in case I ever went too far during one of my dalliances with Lady Bitterblue. Very silly on my part to keep such a thing a secret, I’m sure.”
“Not silly at all, Grandmother,” Lowen said, pushing away a small sting of annoyance at this late revelation. Her grandmother lived, that was all that mattered.
“You are the first satyr I’ve seen in many a long year,” Conwen continued, talking as though the blue sickness had never been. As though they were exchanging pleasantries at a festival. “Tell me, was your kind always this tall, or are you an abnormally giant specimen?”
“I can assure you, I am but an average specimen,” Nicanor replied politely.
“And is it true what they say about the size of a satyr’s horns? Do they really correlate with the size of their—”
“Grandmother! Please stop asking him these dreadful questions.” Lowen was blushing so furiously she could feel the heat prickling her face and neck.
“I’m sorry,” the old woman said, relenting. “I’m simply making the most of having you here in my home, Nicanor. After all, when will I ever again have the pleasure of seeing a satyr squeezed into my little hut?”
Lowen felt sure that Nicanor would be embarrassed, even annoyed at being asked such personal questions. To her surprise, he shook his head and laughed. “I have never heard of such a thing,” he said. He reached for Lowen’s hand and gently squeezed her fingers. “Your grandmother may ask me whatever she likes, Lowen.”
“There is much love between you,” Conwen observed, her gaze lingering on their intertwined fingers. “That is good. You will need to draw strength from each other if you are to endure what is to come.”
Nicanor’s grip on Lowen’s hand tightened and she heard him draw a deep breath. “When you were in the grasp of the blue sickness, you repeated a name,” he said. “Gwyrdmet. You talked about protecting the Gift.”
“Yes,” Conwen nodded. “Your child will be a precious gift indeed.” When Nicanor’s eyes darkened with confusion, Conwen began to tell him the story that Lowen already knew. The truth of the Waste Wars and the terrible price their people paid in order to keep the children born of Scrat and Satyr from the clutches of Lord Dewer.
“Your tale is barbaric,” Nicanor said once she had finished.
“Yes,” Conwen agreed. “The Scrat and the Satyr Nation believed they had no other choice and no such child has been born in one hundred years.” She looked up at Lowen with a wan smile. “No such child until yours.”
“But what does that mean?” Lowen suddenly cried, tired of not understanding. “What manner of child am I carrying?”
“A perfectly healthy one, I would hope,” Conwen replied. Seeing that Lowen was about to fly into a rage, the old woman held up her hand, making her pause. “Are you truly willing to seek out Gwyrdmet?”
“Grandmother, I must confess I do not know who Gwyrdmet is. I was so desperate to see you well, to have you swallow the elixir, I’m quite sure I would have promised you anything.”
“You have never heard tell of the Green King? Do they teach young people nothing these days? And you, satyr? What do you know of Gwyrdmet?”
When Nicanor’s face remained blank, Conwen huffed and pulled herself up in her chair. “Gwyrdmet is a powerful being. A life force of the forest. The protector of the trees and all who dwell within them. Some call him a god. He resides with his court in the foothills of the Cappal Mountains.”
“That is a great distance from here,” Lowen said. “It would take many weeks to reach the mountains.”
“It would, but reach them you must if you are to beg Gwyrdmet for his help.”
“Why do we need his help?” Lowen’s voice was little more than a whisper. Cold, creeping fear had overtaken her earlier frustration and she felt the sudden need to sit. Instead, she leaned against Nicanor. He wrapped a long arm around her shoulders, pulling her closer.
Conwen’s face was drawn with sympathy for her granddaughter. She took another long gulp from her water cup before continuing. “Your child will be powerful. Our most secret legends tell of children with magickal gifts unlike the world has ever seen. Children who spoke with the moons, who could draw power from the stars. Cold, fiery power that could heal and nurture as surely as it could destroy. I have even heard tell of children who could fly. Children who could disappear and move as wraiths, unseen. It is not enough to simply hide such a child from the likes of Lord Dewer who would seek to take that power for themselves. The child must be taught to control their gifts, to use them responsibly. The fate of all Joria may well hinge upon it. Gwyrdmet is as old as the mountains and as wise as the moons. He will know how to guide you.”
A thick silence fell upon the hut. Lowen and Nicanor stood, leaning against each other as they turned over everything Conwen had told them. When Odelin flew back through the window, the sharp ruffling of his feathers made them all start. The bird landed on Lowen’s shoulder, lifting the hair from her neck, and bobbed agitatedly.
“People are nearby,” Lowen said, feeling as though she had been woken from an unsettling dream. Or a nightmare. “Nicanor, you must leave before you are discovered.”
Nicanor stood his ground, his forehead creased. “We have learned so much today. How can I simply return to the satyr and pretend all is well?”
“You must,” Conwen said firmly. “Lowen will send for you shortly.” She looked pointedly at her granddaughter. “Won’t you, Lowen?”
Lowen nodded, fearful of Nicanor’s imminent capture. “Please go,” she said. “I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to you.”
“Nor I if anything happened to you,” he replied. He bent to kiss her forehead and gave Conwen a short bow before turning to leave.
“Odelin will accompany you,” Lowen said. “He’ll alert you to any danger.” The bird fluttered obediently over to Nicanor, hovering briefly and appearing to debate whether or not to land on one of his horns before settling for his broad right shoulder.
The satyr allowed himself one last look at Lowen, his gaze drifting down to her stomach and the protective hand she instinctively placed upon it. Then he swept aside the curtain of feathers and beads and disappeared into the forest.