Fauna accompanied her boss Serena back up the trail to the paved stone walkways of the bungalow area. When they reached a small cluster of public buildings which included the medical facilities, the receptionist took her leave of the herbalist, heading back the way they came, but towards the residential housing area. It was past her shift and the morning’s excitement had worn on her more than usual. At least now she could go to bed knowing everyone was safe and taken care of.
Serena continued on to the medical building – its importance belied by a small, modest facade on the outside. Once one got beyond the front doors, inside it was clean and modern, with a large atrium in the center surrounded on all sides by glass, its contents containing all manner of healing native plants. They were often utilized by the staff and Serena in the care of their patients when fresh ones were required instead of the prepared poultices and infusions kept in another wing of the center.
The receptionist/nurse on call bowed to the herbalist and they exchanged greetings and light pleasantries while Serena signed in. The fresh scent and soft babble of the indoor fountain behind reception helped calm the herbalist’s anxiety at being told Jim was here, allowing her to keep a steadier hand than she had thought would be possible upon arriving.
“How is my father doing?” the resort owner asked, setting the pen back down on the desk.
“Back to his usual self – restless, cranky, impatient, but,” and here she hesitated. “Miss Serena…I have to warn you. He’s – he’s…changed.”
“Changed?” his daughter echoed. “What do you mean?”
“He’s older,” the nurse whispered. “He’s aged!”
“What?” she whispered. “How? How much? I don’t understand.”
“We aren’t sure. The doctor estimates as much as ten years!”
The woman stared at her employee in a mixture of disbelief and growing fear. Wordlessly she went past her, picking up a quicker pace towards her father’s room.
“I don’t care! I’m fine and I’m not staying!” Jim’s voice rattled the corridor walls. “Where’s my daughter?!?”
From the tone of his voice Serena could tell he was back to normal, mood-wise at least, but with a crankier, angrier edge to his voice. Perhaps the receptionist had misheard Dr. Cameron’s diagnosis. Maybe he only sounded older. Oh, Goddess…
“I’m here, father,” Serena said smoothly, walking into the sunny room. “Calm down – ” her voice trailed off, her hand going to her mouth, aghast.
The nurse, it turned out, had not exaggerated. Two days ago her father had left their home in Moonville a man of 35. Now a man closer to 50 with a lined face and hair graying at the temples greeted her. The only thing that was the same were his eyes – they were slightly less bright, but still angry.
His daughter stared so long and hard at him, not moving, that it began to worry him. “What?” he demanded, his voice turning slightly less aggressive, but still aggravated.
Serena moved closer, but was speechless, scanning him with such a deep gaze he knew she was using her uncanny inborn diagnostic abilities in an attempt to learn the depth of the damage to his body.
“I know that look,” he sighed. “It’s not that bad. I’m alive, I’m healthy.”
His daughter’s heaving shoulders made him regret his words. While the fact he was still healthy was of course important, it wasn’t the point. There was no fooling her, he realized. Within a few seconds of looking at her beloved father, Serena knew Dr. Cameron had been correct and she had lost 15 years of their time left together.
Young Jim got up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed, his expression softening. The action seemed to wake Serena out of her state of shock and she went to him immediately, dissolving into tears.
Seeing his beloved daughter so upset instantly melted any anger and frustration he had had. “Oh Sunbeam,” he enfolded her in his arms, rubbing comforting circles on her back. “It isn’t all that bad. It could have been a lot worse, trust me,” he assured her, remembering his forced encounter with Whocate was meant to kill, not merely age him.
She pulled back in his embrace to look into his newly careworn and lined face. “Of course it could have been. You could have been aged to death!”
It was Young Jim’s turn to draw slightly back, staring into her green eyes in shock. How..? “H-how would you know? You don’t even know what did this…I don’t even understand what did this!”
She looked at him, confused for a moment, then turned her attention inward as she always did when processing the impressions and feelings she got from her patients when analyzing their illnesses. Then a look of horror crossed her features. She backed away, “No…no…” she moaned.
“What Sunbeam? What’s wrong?” She was scaring him. Those damn Whoticores must have done something to him, something worse than he was aware of.
“I – I did it. It’s my fault!” she swallowed, hyperventilating.
The declaration of guilt caught him off guard and he stared at her instead of immediately denying it was her. How could she have known he had seen her in the cold marble gaze of the statue of the patron goddess of their distant relatives? “What? No…no…you weren’t there, sweetheart. You had nothing to do with – “
Her crying stopped as her mood quickly shifted. “Yes, yes I did! I did have something to do with it! It was in your eyes, for an instant.” She moved back to the bed, staring hard at him, piecing together and processing all the facts of his arrival she had learned up to now. “You rode in on Nightmist. Where was he? At the Whoticore mansion?”
Jim fidgeted uncomfortably.
“What were you doing there?” Now her eyes lit up with realization. “Oh Goddess, you went to kill Loki, didn’t you?”
Jim couldn’t help it. His gaze hardened at the mention of the vile animal that had soiled his beautiful daughter. “If only I’d had the pleasure,” he spat. “He was already dying. But he wasn’t there. They’d already committed him to Mountainville’s sanitarium.”
“They why were you at – “
“Because they kidnapped me from the sanitarium!” Jim yelled. “That beast of a ‘man’!” he air-quoted. “He was nearly dead and his family came in and ambushed me! They knocked me unconscious with some damnable spell and dragged me back to their mansion.”
Serena’s expression didn’t change. He would find no sympathy for his plight in her bright eyes. “Do you blame them? And I know you, father,” she crossed her arms. “There’s more to it than that. What happened there?”
Jim stubbornly set his jaw, refusing to answer.
“You know I can do a water scrye to see what happened,” she reminded him, shifting into an air of quiet calm.
“I forbid it,” her father growled. “You know that will contaminate the baby if you use any kind of magic!”
Serena let her arms fall to her sides as she crossed to the window. She gazed out at the stone walkways, the winter sleeping trees dripping with morning frost not yet evaporated by the cold sun above. “She was conceived through magick, father. Her existence is because of a miracle of – “
“ – no,” he denied. “she was conceived in a violent act upon you – .”
“ – a miracle of ceremonial, ritual magick that attuned me to – “ she began to correct him.
“Stop it, Serena! You cannot embrace this witchery,” Jim snapped.
“ – that attuned me to our true nature,” she finished, jaw set, just as stubborn as the man she was arguing with. After a moment she sighed, turning away. This was not the first time they had argued over this. Serena feared there would be many more than just the handful so far. It was going to be a long pregnancy. She sighed.
“Is that all you risked your life to do?” she asked without turning around. “To kill a man who was already dying?”
“No,” he replied without elaborating. He narrowed his eyes. “You knew he was dying then, didn’t you.”
“Of course I did, especially when it was completely my fault! It was hard to miss when the strong male you just mated with grows so weak he can barely move, his lifeforce fading before your eyes.” She caught her breath, fighting not to cry. “It was so horrible,” she added, whispering.
“Something good came from this, after all, then,” he muttered.
Serena turned back on him, her expression changing from sadness to anger. “That’s a vile thing to wish on another, father! And you still wonder why your herbalist certification was revoked?”
He stood up, testing his balance, his strength. It was still below par but would do as long as he didn’t push himself. “No,” he replied. “I wonder why you turned on me at the inquest. Why you voted to have it revoked as well.”
“Our oath as healers is sacred,” she said with unveiled anger and no hesitation. “You broke that trust when you tried to take his life before the trial! They would have tried you for murder if Loki himself had not refused to press charges!”
This news rocked Jim. “What? He wouldn’t – ” he began to ask.
“No,” she repeated.
He was flabbergasted. This couldn’t have been the same horrible, evil man he had seen in Mountainville sanitarium. “Why?” was all he could think to ask at this strange news.
“Because,” she put a hand to her mouth, suppressing another sob. “He knew he would not live to see Luna born. He knew I would need you.”
Jim started to feel as if he had not asked enough questions before running off half-cocked to Mountainville. He had just never imagined – especially after meeting Loki Whoticore face-to-face and talking to him – that the man would have been capable of that much compassion.
By now he was tiring, his anger wearing on him more than usual. It was a moment before he spoke again, this time more kindly. “So you’ve settled on calling her Luna?”
Serena merely nodded, her shoulders still shaking from unshed tears. “If she lives.”
He may have hated the name, it reminding him of the Whoticores, but his daughter’s fear tore at his heart and that was more important right now. Though he had not been with her through the first two miscarriages, they and the guilt of his absence along with his daughter’s fright were hard to hear. He went to her, put his hands on her shoulders as she was turned away from him, feeling the suppressed sobs as they wracked her body. If there were anything he could say to make it better…
“You won’t lose her,” he said quietly. At least not by accident.
“She won’t live. None of them do!” Serena lost the fight against a fresh flood of tears.
He turned her around in his arms. She buried her face in his shoulder and sobbed.
“She’ll live, Serena. She shouldn’t, given your history with miscarriages, but perhaps she will. She’ll be the one to survive,” Jim assured her a lie. “Loki and his family told me that much.” Inwardly he cursed the Whoticores, whose words he needed to use now to reassure his daughter. Especially when his vows to Lord Loki to murder the child were still haunting him.
As if reading his mind, a small, still upset voice spoke into his shoulder. “You don’t want her to live.”
Jim merely held his daughter, stroking her hair. If he tried to broach the subject of terminating the pregnancy, she would disown him right then and there, and he wanted to put that certainty off as long as possible.
“I don’t understand, dad. How could you?” a woman sobbed.
“What?” Jim opened his eyes and was once again on a stone bridge overlooking a river…again right here at Westwind, again at sunset, Serena’s voice ringing clear with his betrayal in his thoughts. He drew back, shaking the fragments of his hallucination in front of the statue of Whocate from his waking mind.
Serena looked hard into his eyes, as if she were boring into his soul, his thoughts. “How could you what?”
Had he spoken out loud? His heart skipped a beat. How could she know what I’m thinking? What I saw at the Whoticore mansion…
“How could I…do that to you?” he lied, pulling her back down to his shoulder, rubbing comforting circles on her back. “I’m scared, Sunbeam, and confused. I – I don’t know what to think right now.”
That part, at least, was the truth.
Satisfied, Serena contented herself with just being held by her father, clinging to the promise of Luna’s life he had given her in Loki’s last words of hope.
Next Chapter – Young Jim, Old Jim