~ THE HEALER ~
Those two seemingly simple words rung in my head repeatedly over and over again like a never ending echo, haunting my thoughts whether I was awake or asleep, never letting me forget the mind-numbing horror and realization that had filled me when I'd first heard them.
That one statement explained everything—the gifts, why the servants called me "Madam" and bowed in my presence, and all the little things Jerium would say that used to confuse me, but not anymore. It all made sense. All of it. They all had known of Henrik's intentions and what my mark symbolized, my fate carved in stone like the punctures in my neck.
Everyone had known but me.
I groaned in frustration, rubbing my face violently like it would somehow scrape away the heavy feeling in my stomach. My emotions were a nasty concoction of negativity, feasting on and fighting with each other, that made my thoughts run to dark corners I didn't want to see, the places where my demons resided and happily watched me squirm so they could fill my head with so much blackness that it felt like I would eventually drown in it.
I paced my room, the closest area to a sanctuary I had in the palace and where I'd been childishly hiding from the weight of Henrik's statement for the past three days.
Just thinking about those words again, I could feel my heavy heart pounding in my chest like a clock counting down to something treacherous. Imagining that I could be bound to a mass killer, a Lycan, the Cursed King forever made me physically ill and my body racked with shivers and sweat.
I understood perfectly well that being his queen wouldn't involve just strutting around in a crown and looking nice in whatever dresses were chosen for me. No. It meant giving him heirs. It meant giving up my virtue. It meant giving up every part of myself to him.
It meant eternal imprisonment of my body and soul.
My breaths turned ragged and short, causing my head to feel light and my body weak. I stopped and stared at myself in the floor length mirror next to the bathroom door, realization dawning upon me as I stared at my frail form, my arms so thin that I doubted they could lift more than a couple dozen pounds.
I had no doubt Henrik had enough magic in his blood to keep him alive forever if conditions allowed it. However, a human such as myself, who possessed only enough magic—which is just a pure form of energy—to stay alive for a few decades, did not; I would grow old in front of his eyes and eventually would be unable to provide him the satisfaction any male craved in a spouse.
And when Henrik grew tired of me, which I knew would be inevitable, he could snap my neck like a twig and move onto the next unfortunate damsel in distress he caught floundering in the woods. The image of my mangled, aged body rotting amongst the trees and the skeletons of my friends caused a shiver to go down my spine and my eyes to sting, believing with every fiber that created my being that it would be my future if I didn't escape Henrik's clutches.
I looked towards the bay window and shuddered as I made my slow approach towards it, my clutched hands shaking uncontrollably like leaves in a storm. My veins turning cold, I stepped up onto the window seat and peaked down at the snowy ground about a kilometer below, a fatal drop for anyone with the frozen soil. Even an immortal.
My eyes burned with unshed tears, trying to avert my gaze to the trees beyond instead of what laid below. I gulped and marveled at the beauty of the sun beginning to peak over the mountains, how its warmth and light embraced me like my loving husband through the glass. The husband I'd never have. The life I'd never have. The love I'd never have.
All was lost because of four stupid teenagers' mistake—because of my mistake
My arm raised outward and I reached for the window latch, my hand tracing the tiny lever in appreciation. I'd never realized until then how nice it was, how soothingly and comfortingly cold it was, no doubt a result from the freezing outdoor temperatures, or how kind its metal was to my fingertips, each ridge in its center like an individual kiss.
A rap of knocks came from the door, startling me and making me jolt.
"Good morning, Madam! I've brought you some breakfast and some medical supplies for your mark!" a woman's voice shouted too-loudly through the door, making me relax the slightest bit when it was confirmed it wasn't Henrik, who had only tried once to enter my room and that had quickly ended in a silent rejection. His frustrated growl and the fading of his footsteps sounded in my head from time to time but never as much as his words.
The stranger's chirpiness sparked something inside me I'd never felt before, something so angry that it could've been considered evil. There I was, orphaned, friendless, trapped in a forced engagement with the Cursed King, and miserable beyond the measure of bearability, and she had the audacity or perhaps the naivety to act like everything was alright—that I was somehow supposed to act fine after everything that had happened in the past two weeks.
I wasn't. I wasn't at all and I wished she would go disturb someone who was, who would certainly appreciate her warm tone a lot more than myself.
I looked back at the window latch, staring at it for so long that my eyes began burning. It looked much more inviting than the door.
Do it, the voice inside me encouraged and my lower lip began to wobble.
"May I come in?"
I sighed, closing my eyes and pushing out that voice that had forced its way inside my head. It would have to wait.
"Yes," I replied begrudgingly and slid down onto the floor, taking my time as I dragged my feet to the other side of the room. I was glad Henrik had at least sent a female this time, seeing that I hadn't bothered changing out of my nightgown. The flames in the fireplace did more than enough to heat the room and I simply didn’t find a point in changing when I knew I wasn’t going to leave my room anyway.
The door handle was cold to the touch as well when I grabbed it lightly between my fingertips, but not in the comforting way I'd experienced with the lever. No. This was just cold, stinging, unfeeling brass I held in my hands and I despised it, longing for the silver of the latch.
I opened the door and was pleasantly surprised to see a female standing there without a servant's uniform on and holding a colorful platter of food. My nose noticed the smell before my eyes could register what it was. Flapjacks, sausages, fruit, and over easy eggs on toast greeted me and made my mouth instantly water and my emotions deflate to the back of my mind as hunger took over.
After my meals being dominated by meat for the past few weeks except for the sad excuses for vegetables that were given as my sides, I longed to taste something different and not feel that chewy firmness between my teeth for once. This, right in front of me, was the epitome of perfection.
I looked up at the female and was about to give my thanks when I noticed her eyes and faltered, a lightbulb flickering to life in my head. They weren't gold but an unmistakable vibrant shade of blue. I hadn't seen a person with blue eyes since I left Amaryllus except for my reflection, which concluded to me that this female wasn't Lycan, whose species’ eye color was always some shade of gold.
"May I come in?" the female repeated and I nodded, stepping aside and feeling a sense of relief when I looked at her ears and noticed they were round, which meant she wasn’t Fae.
I closed the door behind her and watched the stranger’s back as she placed the tray on the small table in front of the fireplace that had two matching chairs. My new room was definitely a lot more modest than Henrik's, being what I perceived to be about half the size of his, which didn’t shock me since he was the king and all. It was still more than enough though. More than I could’ve ever dreamed of.
"Come, come." The female, who I guessed to be around thirty years of age, waved me over with her hand, a smile dancing in her eyes. "Eggs get cold quickly."
I sat down in the chair that faced the door and eyed her curiously when she untied a small bag attached to the thick belt that exaggerated her tiny waist. She wasn't stunning but she wasn't a displeasure to look at either. Her face was very slim, almost a perfect triangular shape, with sunken eyes and ears that stuck out from under auburn curls. Her true beauty resided in her personality which I was beginning to see was vivacious and welcoming, something I thought to be much more important than having great bone structure. Whatever that meant.
I watched her closely as she pulled out a small wooden container from her bag and quickly unscrewed the lid, placing it on the table once it was open.
"Please eat," she said when she noticed I had yet to pick up a utensil. Her tone was soft like a child's and as calming as rain.
I picked up the fork and stabbed at the flapjacks first, stuffing such a large amount into my mouth at once that I practically had to unhinge my jaw to fit it all. They were sweet, buttery, and as light as air all at once. I hummed in delight, savoring the sensations, and when I took another bite, pairing it with slices of strawberry and banana, I found heaven.
The female giggled at my exaggerated facial expressions. "I'm glad you like them. It's my mom's recipe," she said proudly and stepped over to my seated form, dipping two fingers into the wooden jar.
I swallowed and eyed it warily, catching strong scents of peppermint and lavender. "What is that?" I tried to hide my embarrassment from how raspy my voice sounded, not allowing her to meet my traitorous eyes.
"This will help soothe your mark until it fully heals," she explained and without warning, began rubbing the clear goop in small circles on the said area, as if she knew if she had asked for permission, there would have been some kind of an argument.
The texture reminded me of petroleum jelly, a moisturizer that my mother was obsessed with and used for everything, swearing on her life that it was some sort of panacea for cracked skin and dry hair.
My body relaxed as the angry skin of my mark cooled from the inside-out and my body instantly felt more at peace, practically slumping against the back of the seat. "How long should that take?—the healing process." My voice sounded breathy and my eyes started to droop. After not sleeping well for three night in a row and with my pain finally gone, the extent of how truly exhausted I was, physically and mentally, was taking its toll in one drastic blow.
"However long it takes for you to accept the King," she said, sounding regretful. "Marks are openings, or portals, that allow two souls to connect together. It's only when both souls accept each other that it can heal."
I stayed silent, choosing to keep my condescending remark and frustration, which would’ve come out in the form of multiple curse words, to myself. Accept the Henrik? I neither could nor would ever do such a crime against everyone I ever cared about—not willingly. But the thought of living with a very visible and irritated bite mark on my neck forever didn't sound like a great plan either.
I was trapped yet again between two choices I didn't want. The heavy feeling in my stomach returned and with my mark's pain gone, it was the only thing I had left to focus on.
As she screwed back on the lid, I tilted by head to the side and cracked my neck, finally being able to move it again without excruciating pain. I sighed in relief, taking in a deep breath of the strong scent. However my peacefulness didn't last long. The cooling effect of the salve suddenly made my body go rigid when I realized I had felt the same oddly satisfying sensation just three days ago.
The memory of Henrik’s lips on my skin had my face heating up. But it only lasted for a second.
"So, what exactly is in this stuff?" I asked, pushing my food around on my plate with my fork and attempting to appear indifferent as I awaited her response. My voice sounded shaky but I was confident this female was as obtuse as she appeared and wouldn't notice such a small detail.
"Oh, you know, just things to help relieve the pain." She smiled and placed the jar on my dresser with my perfumes, one bottle noticeably emptier than the rest. The one that smelled and looked like a rose.
Because of her vague reply, I knew she was hiding something but I didn't push it. I didn't want to. I knew my attempts would be futile and even if they weren't, I'd probably only be disturbed by the truth of what exactly was in that salve. At least I could tell myself I would never use it again, pain-relieving or not. I was so stubborn that I would rather be in pain than use something I knew Henrik sent me.
"Do you work here?" I questioned instead before taking another mouthful of eggs and toast, a combination I realized I hadn’t appreciated enough in my life.
"I'm a healer," she said and strode over to take a seat in the chair across from me. It was apparent she wasn't planning on leaving like the others had after they'd brought my food. "Your healer now," she added with a friendly smile.
I raised my eyebrows at the familiar term.
I'd heard about Healers. They had a natural gift that allowed them to sense a person's exact illness just by being near them and instantly knew how to treat them, whether it be with their small amount of magic, which wasn’t enough to keep them living much longer than a human’s life expectancy, or typical medical supplies. Folklore said they were created out of the feathers of doves by the Wellness Goddess, Heila, to ease the pain of life her twin sister, Agna, had cursed them with. Last I'd heard, there were only a couple hundred left in Trellomar and they were employed by only the wealthiest of nobles. Sadly, they had been gifted in kindness just as much as healing and people had used that to their advantage to wipe most of their population out.
I hated how impressed I was by her and wished I could get rid of how much it showed on my face. "So you can, like, sense if I'm healthy?"
She nodded, looking pleased by my sudden interest, and noticeably sat up straighter.
"Am I?" I said, genuinely perplexed. She would've been helpful two weeks ago when I had my illness.
Her eyes trailed up and down my form and then rested on my forehead, her eyebrows crinkling together in what appeared to be deep thought.
My heartbeat quickened at the level of intensity she was staring at me, wondering if she was just judging the gigantic pimple that had decided to show up overnight—Or could she sense something much deeper than that?
"What?" I finally asked when she didn't say anything.
She blinked, seeming to come back to reality. "Oh, nothing," she said with a giggle and a wave of her hand. "You're perfectly fine." She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear then shot up her head as if she remembered something. "I'm sorry. Have I introduced myself?"
I shook my head, my face passive. This female was all over the place. It was quite irritating to experience so early in the morning, especially since I'd woken up in the same sour mood I’d been in for the past couple days.
"I'm Ingrid," she said and quickly stuck out her hand. I stretched out my own to shake it, her grip warm against my cold fingers. “Ingrid Lattimore."
My hand stilled and I quickly pulled it back to my body like her hand was a hot iron about to burn me. "What?" I said in disbelief at the female in front of me, searching for any tells that gave her lie away. When I didn't find any, I figured I must've heard her incorrectly and tried to soothe my racing mind with that notion.
She stared at me wordlessly, startled by my outburst. Her hand retreated slowly. "Is there something wrong?"
"That name. I’ve heard it before," I said as my mind took me back fifteen years and to the graveyard in my village, to a rectangular-shaped grave in the back with a moon in its center, the symbol recognizing the person as a victim to the Cursed Kingdom. "No," I stated firmly, shaking my head. "No, you can't be Ingrid Lattimore. She's dead." I stood up to walk to the other side of the room and get as far away from her as possible to pace, almost tipping my chair over in the process. "Is this a sick joke?" I yelled defensively, pointing an accusing finger.
Not only was Ingrid Lattimore dead, but she'd lived in my village and was murdered by the very beasts we all feared after she took her daily stroll in the woods one day and never came back, her story being one of the most popular ones in my village until a child accidentally wandered away from his parents a few years later while they were sledding and he became the talk of our entire province when he never returned. From what I remembered, the only thing they said they found left of Ingrid was her heart, a token left by the beasts so her fate would be known.
The female stood to her feet carefully, watching me. "That is my name, Raena, the one given to me by my parents." She looked down at her hands shyly. She looked confused and gently bit her lip. Had it been any other circumstances, I would've admired her innocent appearance. Instead, it angered me further.
I shook my head. "No, you're lying." My voice cracked and I cursed myself. "There's a gravestone. I'd always put a candle next to it on Grievsday. Hell, I remember the day she died," I uttered with a sarcastic laugh, wondering just how stupid everyone in the Cursed Kingdom thought I was.
Although I had only been three, I could still picture her funeral in my head as if it took place only a few hours ago, everyone dressed all in black as I stood beside my mother, confused and too young to understand the tragedy that had happened. I could remember Ingrid's parents moaning and sobbing to themselves day and night for their only child for almost a year before they could function somewhat normally again, my mother continuing to take them meals at least twice a month for almost ten years until she got too weak to stand.
"Died?" she cried. Her eyes widened and her lips parted, her face paling to a sickly color. She looked absolutely horrified. "I didn't die! Who told you I'd died?" Her small chest rose and fell quickly, displaying the stamina of her short breaths.
"Everyone," I remarked bitterly, never wanting to smack a person so much before in my life. "Ingrid's story was one of the most popular ones when I was growing up. All they had to bury of her was her heart, which was more than most could say. The Tale of the Heartless Maiden."
I watched as she shook her head back and forth feverishly, muttering panicked things to herself. It reminded me of myself, how damaged I felt whenever the ground broke away from underneath my feet, and I suddenly felt very cruel.
"Holy Mother," she muttered and cupped her palms over her mouth, looking tearful-eyed. "No, no, no... I didn't die. Raena, I promise you I am telling the truth. My name is Ingrid Anne Lattimore, daughter of Fontaine Marie and William James Lattimore. When I was sixteen, I wandered out too far from my village and met a kind Lycan guard. After a week of sneaking out, I went with him willingly. I’ve sent letters..." she trailed off and began pacing as well, pulling at the roots of her hair. She looked back at me and I watched, planted to the floor as heavily as a rock, while fat tears rolled down her now flushed cheeks. She slowly sank back into her seat, shoulders slumping until her position looked painful, and stared ahead of herself, sniffling and appearing dazed.
I knew the feeling.
For a few moments I assessed her clearly disheveled form and sighed in defeat. I realized I had no proof that she wasn't who she claimed she was except for a story and a grave. And when I thought about it, I started to question something that everyone in my village had failed to ponder: How did they know it was her heart they'd found if there was no body or article of clothing to prove it?
It made me realize that there was a chance there'd been a mistake and that it in fact wasn't Ingrid's. It could've been a swine's or something else's if it was a bit torn up or they hadn’t looked at it closely. There was a chance that Ingrid Lattimore's heart still remained warm and beating in her very much alive body—in the body right in front of me.
"You're really her?" I asked softly and she nodded, her shoulders violently moving up and down with each of her sobs. I sighed and dragged myself back over to the table as well, sitting down rather quickly. Pushing the half eaten tray of food across the table to her with one hand, I used my other to hand her an unused fork, an extra she’d no doubt brought in case I needed.
She looked up at me with red tinged eyes through moistened eyelashes, looking uncertain about my gesture and its motive.
"Well then, Ingrid, you need to eat too," I said with a forced smile as she tentatively took the utensil from my grasp. "We have a lot to discuss."
That we did indeed.
Thank you for reading!
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Any thoughts on Ingrid?