Watching Cray leave the first time had been harder than Feldar was willing to admit, but Helaine knew anyway.
Even odds as to whether that was due to her supernatural gifts, or the look on his face. Cray had always read his feelings like an open book – he probably didn’t stand much chance hiding anything from a Seer. As the great bronze bird disappeared into the clouds above, taking the only friend Feldar had ever known with it, she touched a gentle hand to his shoulder. “Come,” she says. “There is work for you here yet.”
He tries to swallow past the lump in his throat, without much success. “I will never see him again.”
She raises a brow, and he lets her draw him further back beneath the arch of the tree, into the interior of the cave, back toward the kitchen. “Such certainty. Do you pretend to know your future, then? Or his?”
“It is an apprenticeship, not a death sentence,” Helaine says mildly as the door shuts behind them. “Perhaps he will be rejected and return in short order to seek another master.”
“Or he’ll be accepted right away, and it’ll be years before he thinks of anything but his studies and his quest.” Helaine stacks firewood into his arms and ushers him over toward the fireplace, where he dutifully tends the banked cooking fire. “And I don’t know if I’ll have years,” he adds quietly.
Helaine hums, pulling various and sundry ingredients out for their breakfast. “He has taken the sorcerous path, so I cannot know his future any more than he can – nor can you, Master Feldar. The worst future you imagine is not guaranteed to be the one to pass.”
He snorts. “Now you sound like Cray. In my experience, the worst is often what comes to pass. He will forget me.” He pauses, staring into the reawakening flames. As they dance, he imagines that he can see Cray in them, wearing that stupid straw hat he’d been wearing the day they met. It makes him ache, to think of the hungry loneliness of those days. “He will forget me,” he repeats, “and sooner or later, I’ll be back where I started.”
He hears a splash, then the clink of the icebox. Helaine asks, “Has he been such a poor friend that you would doubt his love for you?”
Feldar jolts, then hisses as he burns himself. Shoving the offended digit into his mouth, he turns to glare at Helaine, who definitely saw this coming because she’s already offering him a cold rag for the burn.
“You know how good a friend he’s been to me,” he says with a scowl. “It isn’t him I doubt.”
“Then trust him – and trust yourself. You are made of stronger stuff than you know. Now, hand me that pan. These eggs won’t cook themselves.”
* * *
He rides Gallant every day.
The huge, steady black horse has come to know him quite well over the last year, and though Gallant’s true master is away, Feldar likes to think they’ve reached an understanding.
At first, Gallant remained hitched to the metal rings fixed in the tree whose split trunk made the entrance to the Seer’s home. But after three weeks passed and still no word came from a sorcerer either able or willing to change his blue or brown eye to match the other (and the third time that Gallant managed to slip his knots and wandered a little too far for comfort) Feldar concluded that a more long-term solution would be needed.
He builds Gallant a little stall, tucked into the side of the hill, beside the cave entrance. It takes him some time, but winter at Mistwell hardened him up to menial labor in a way begging never had. Helaine helped too, directing him to the best trees for felling, in that roundabout, ‘it was your choice all along’ way of hers. In return, Gallant eats his hair and slobbers his face, which Feldar is choosing to take as a sign of affection and gratitude.
Every now and then, the Seer will mention offhandedly that he and Gallant ought to take a longer ride that day, or to wait until later in the day. He heeds her advice, because to ignore the advice of a Seer seems particularly stupid, and because he usually makes fortuitous finds when he does. After stumbling upon a trove of mushrooms or fruit come to bear early in the season, he even starts to look forward to those days, when Helaine drops a bit of uncanny knowledge into the conversation. Though he’ll sometimes catch glimpses of folk arriving just as he’s left the sight of the road, or who are leaving just as he returns.
Of course, the Seer has visitors – her gifts are oft sought out by mortal men who fear their fate. They usually come when she’s sent him out riding, but sometimes they come when he is in the back rooms. He hears them through the door, begging, pleading, demanding answers, and Helaine dances around the answering until they’re ready for her hard truths. She asks him after they leave what he’s learned from listening, but he never intrudes when she is practicing her art, and she has never indicated that he should do otherwise. He stays behind the door.
He doesn’t blame her for wanting him out of the way, when folk come calling. He’s used to it. The lone Seer is one thing – but a lad with the evil eye, here, when what they seek is reassurance and good fortune? It would reflect poorly on her, and that’s the last thing he wants after all her hospitality.
When she has no special direction to give him over breakfast, he takes Gallant out in the late morning, to hunt for their supper. He’s gotten better at that too, since the winter and since Cray left. Cray used to do all the hunting, often with the aid of his magic spiders and their wondrous nets. He offered so many times to show Feldar how it was done, but the thought of spiders on his skin still makes his flesh crawl, no matter how friendly and harmless Cray assured him they were. He doesn’t have a small brigade of creeping, spinning spiders at his command, but a few snares and some patience has served him well enough.
He checks the traps in the woods, and sometimes will pause at the sight of a spiderweb, still glistening with the last of the morning dew as the climbing sun shines golden through the leaves. The little raisin bodies sit in the center of the web, legs spread out and perfectly immobile, even when the breeze shakes through them. He often wonders if the spiders he sees were one of Cray’s.
Cray once said, with quite the defensive edge, that spiders were elegant, graceful as noble ladies, and in fact rather beautiful, thanks. Feldar hadn’t been convinced at the time, having been mildly traumatized after spending multiple nights in magically sealed tents woven by those spiders, but now, alone with Cray’s horse in the woods, fetching rabbits from snares and staring at silver thread – Feldar feels almost…moved.
Then a bug smacks into the web, and the spider scuttles over to wrap it in a cocoon to slowly feast upon at its leisure, and all moved feelings swiftly depart. Sorry, Cray.
Spiders are still creepy.
* * *
One autumn afternoon, about three months into his stay with Helaine, after his usual morning ride, Feldar spots a man on horseback coming up the path. The only people who come calling are those with a price to pay the Seer, who come to have their fortune told. Stomach lurching, Feldar immediately reaches to cover his eye – either one, it doesn’t matter, it’s been so long since he’s worn an eyepatch, he’s out of practice – and quickly latches Gallant’s stall door as he bolts for the tree arch.
“My lady!” He shouts down the corridor. He finds her sitting placidly at the edge of the pool, gazing down into the still waters with a distant expression. “My lady, there’s a—"
“—a visitor. Yes.” She turns her gaze on him, and he’s begun to recognize what mischief looks like on her ageless face. It looks rather like serenity, but by now he’s caught wise. “I know.”
He garbles out a frustrated noise. “I know you know, that’s not—nevermind. I’ll just head back and check the stew—”
“Not today, Master Feldar,” and he freezes with his hand on the door. “Come,” she says, her long white braid sliding over her shoulder as she rises. “Let’s go and greet our guest.”
Feldar swallows. “And my eye? I haven’t any covering for it. I do not think they’ll react so well to me.”
She gives him a small smile. “You won’t be needing one. Here,” she brushes past him through the door for a moment, then returns with a wine carafe and two mugs on a tray. “You may pour the wine. Our guest is thirsty.”
With shaking hands, he takes the tray, and does his best to keep it steady. He follows her out to the archway, and so focused is he on not spilling the tray’s contents, that he misses the greetings that pass between Helaine and the man, who by his horse and dress appears to be a knight. The knight glances once at Feldar, gaze flicking with wariness between his brown and blue eyes, but he says nothing as he hitches his horse to one of the metal rings at the entryway. At Helaine’s bidding, he follows them through the arch, down the corridor, and to the crystal studded cave that houses the dark pool.
As Helaine settles on the lip of the pool, she nods to him, and he takes that as his cue to pour. He manages it without embarrassing himself, and offers a cup first to the knight, as their guest, who takes it with only mild hesitance, then to Helaine.
She looks expectantly at the knight, who seems to mettle himself before opening his mouth to speak. Out of him pours his tale, of his woes as a younger son, and a lady for whom he pines, and his plans to win her hand interrupted by a call to arms by his liege-lord. Feldar finds himself forming his own opinions on the knight’s plans, and of the reassurance he is seeking, but Helaine listens with perfect impassivity. She knows all of this already, but she lets him speak. At the end of the telling, the knight finally reaches his question.
“…I ask, O Seer, is our love doomed to fail? When I am gone to the battlefield and not so close to assure her of my devotions, will she forget me?”
Helaine gives the knight a kind look. “I do not think you need me to tell you of her love for you, Vizik Golborro. It is clear from your telling alone that you need no such assurances. I don’t need to be a Seer to see that.”
The knight is shocked at her words. Feldar knows the feeling. Helaine has a habit of telling you things you hadn’t yet realized for yourself; it’s very annoying. “I…”
“Why are you truly here? What is it that you fear so, if not the continued faith of your lady?”
The knight is silent for a moment as he considers the Seer’s words. He looks down at the fine, white sand that coats the cave floor. Cray had looked like that, after they had brought the only thing buried in his father’s grave, and Helaine had dropped the ultimatum – that for Cray’s quest to continue, to find his father’s identity, he would have to pursue the sorcery he had been running from all his life. It is a frightful thing, facing what you fear, what you dread. And melancholy, Feldar thinks, to bear witness to it. Knowing that you cannot face it for them.
Finally, the knight looks up, and he looks resolute in a way he hadn’t since arriving. Feldar sees it now, the man his lady loves. He meets the Seer’s eye.
“Will I die in the coming conflict? Was our parting truly the last?”
Helaine gazes back for a moment, then turns her head to the still, dark pool. Torchlight flickers off the water as she drags three fingertips lightly across its surface in a circular motion.
“To know one’s fate very rarely brings men peace. If I tell you that you are doomed to die without sight of her again? What will you do, Vizik Golborro? Will you run from your fate, and abandon your duties? Will you ride to the battlefield, knowing that you ride to your grave?”
With each word the knight grows more and more pale, but Feldar keeps his eyes on Helaine. She hasn’t yet begun to look. He can’t say how he knows, but – something about the quality of her gaze. It remains present.
“And what if I say you will be reunited at the end? That you will marry as you promised each other in her father’s garden, and grow to see your children’s children? Will you go, convinced that your death is far off and away? Will you fight with the same vigor, without the sting of fear to ride you? Or will you grow careless in your invincibility?”
The knight stares at her, then jumps when she suddenly clasps his gauntleted hand, water from the pool beading on the steel. “Trust in your sword arm, knight of the realm, for it has not failed you yet. Trust in your own ability. You fight for a future you already know is promised to you. There will be difficulty, and near-ruin; keep the faith. It has sustained you well in duels and battles past. Let it sustain you now.”
She releases him, and almost in a daze, the knight thanks her and offers a pouch full of silver. Helaine directs it to Feldar, who takes it from the knight’s open hand, and she sees him off down the corridor.
She returns as Feldar is cleaning their mugs in the kitchen, the silver on the tabletop.
“I already understand, ok? You don’t have to keep reminding me,” he says to the wash water.
Helaine pauses. “Oh?”
Feldar rolls his eyes. “’Knowing your fate won’t bring you peace’; ‘trust in yourself’, ‘keep the faith’—I know. I’ll see him again or I won’t but knowing for certain one way or another would just make it worse. That’s why you wanted me to see that, right?”
She takes the money pouch off the table and spirits it away to wherever she keeps the prices that are paid. “Is that all you saw?” She asks, voice drifting from her chambers.
Feldar pauses in his repetitive scrubbing. The mugs are probably clean now. “When you scried for him,” he says, weighing the words. “You weren’t actually scrying, at first. You touched the pool, and he thought you were, but you didn’t look until you spoke of the garden.”
He jolts when she gently takes the thoroughly clean mug from his wet hands. He hadn’t heard her come back. She’s smiling at him. “Anything else?”
He looks down into the dishwater. His own reflection stares back up at him, blue and brown and exposed. For a moment, those eyes stare back at him from a face gaunt with hunger; then a face half-hidden behind a mustache and a beard; then the face of a child, young and naïve and still desperate for something he doesn’t know he can’t have. Then he blinks, and it’s just him, fifteen, and on the edge of something he can’t quite see the whole of.
“…he wasn’t afraid of me. Or at least, not afraid of me more than he was of you, or his future. He looked right at me and said nothing, didn’t even glance at me when I took back his cup.”
Helaine sits in her chair by the fireplace, and Feldar joins her in the chair she bought for him last month. She holds out her hands, palm up, and Feldar takes them. Her pale eyes are serious, but her mouth is kind. Always kind. Since meeting Cray, there’s been so much kindness in Feldar’s life. More than he thought existed. He has to blink. This cave gets dusty sometimes.
“A Seer is expected to be a little strange,” she says, pale eyes dancing in the torchlight, floor-length white braid coiled at her bare feet. “Uncanny. We look into people, and know their lives, Feldar Sepwin. We know the path they took to reach us, and the path they’ll take when they leave us. It is not easy to know your own fate, let alone the fates of all who come to you. They do not listen, because the truth we tell is not always the one they want to hear.”
He thinks of Cray, the three times they visited Helaine, how each time she advised him toward sorcery, and the pain she warned him of at the end of each road he chose in its stead. Is he close, yet? To the end of his quest? Or has it barely begun?
“There are many paths open to you, Feldar. The choice of them is yours, and I will support you no matter what you choose. But know that one of them ends for my sight far sooner than the others—"
He jerks his head up.
“—and I think you know why.”
He stares. She has never once agreed to tell him when he would die. So if it’s not that then…
He looks down at their clasped hands. Then back up at her. With a jolt of realization, he jerks his hands away, but she lets him go freely and merely leans back in her seat.
“You mean—but I’m not—my eyes don’t do anything—”
Helaine cocks her head. “It’s not your eyes that are special, Feldar. It is you, and your temperament. More could become what I am than they know, but most who try are not suited to it. You are. I will ask you now, and the choice is yours – will you be my apprentice, Feldar Sepwin? It is not the only option for your life, but you stand at a crossroads. What you choose is what matters.”
Feldar’s head whirls with the implications. To be a Seer. To know, with certainty, how his life will play out. Helaine has said more than once that she knows what happens in her own home, where her own death lies. He could know for himself. And he could—
He could know if he and Cray were ever to cross paths again. Maybe Cray would be hidden from sight, for he is a sorcerer now, and no sorcerer is visible to a Seer’s eye. But surely if that’s the case, there will be obvious…gaps…in his vision of his own life? Places where, perhaps, a sorcerer crosses his path?
He thinks about what waits for him in the outside world, beyond the sanctuary of Helaine’s cave in the hillside. Here, his eyes go uncovered. There, he is the one-eyed boy without a trade or a family to lean on. He can’t return to begging again, he can’t, and his only family flew away three months ago on the back of a demon.
He could take Cray up on his offer and go to Castle Spinweb, to live with the lady Delivev, Cray’s mother. But the thought of trading the cool comfort of Helaine’s home for a forested castle full of spiders and snakes, and a woman who he knows Cray loves dearly, but who won’t hold the same love for him…no. What he told Cray before he left remains true. The boy Delivev longs to see is not him. Then there would just be two people locked away in a castle, miserably missing Cray.
Helaine sits down, holding two steaming mugs of tea in her hands. He hadn’t realized she’d gotten up in the first place, let alone boiled any water. He accepts the mug she hands him, and takes a sip, mindful of the heat. Honied sweetness warms his tongue, and he looks at Helaine over the rising steam, and she in turn watches the fire, perfectly at ease. He shifts, and his chair creaks, his toes dragging through the soft wool of the rug beneath them. He realizes, for all his anxieties, for all his uncertainties, that he’s grown comfortable here. He licks his lips.
“Alright,” he says, and Helaine turns to him. “Yes. I accept. I will be your apprentice.”