Twinkling stars adorned the ink-black sky. The air was clear and crisp, but since it was the night of the new moon barely any light dispersed the sticky darkness surrounding the camp. Despite that, Lorelei had no problem trekking the muddy path, already knowing the way to the small shack by heart. She heard Jessup’s hurried steps coming from behind but didn’t turn around, her whole being focused on a single target. If she had to be honest, she wanted to jump around and shout out of relief right now. Noah was safe, Kai and Anuk’s father was rescued. This was the best news she had received in days! Alas, the dignity of house Norden had to be kept intact.
In a short while the two were already standing before the small dark hut. Were they sleeping? But the moment Lorelei called, the elder’s voice came from the dim building, inviting them in. Upon entering, Lorelei could see the tiny sleeping figure of Anuk curled beside the glimmering fire in the middle of the shack. Poor kid, she was so tired that even their arrival with Jessup didn’t wake her up. The old man greeted them warmly and seated them around the small fire. Unable to keep her excitement, Lorelei told him the good news in a low tone, so that she wouldn’t wake up the child.
“This is truly a miracle, lady shimshi!” whispered the elder and his hands shook with happiness. “You have done so much for us… for all of us. This old slave is so honored that you have personally come to bring the joyous news. May the Mother Above bless you and his highness, the duke! No other noble would do so much for some wretched beggars like us. And what’s more, these old ears have heard what you are doing for Danika and her family right now...”
“Spare your praises, elder,” Lorelei replied shyly. “His highness and I are just fulfilling our duty.”
“No, that’s not true! In this day, when most see half-bloods as abominations, you caring for them and bringing them justice means a lot.”
The old man stood up and quickly rummaged through his possessions, pulling out a small kettle and two rough wooden cups.
“Actually, your coming here, lady shimshi, is a sign from the Mother Above. This old man was about to visit your highness and express his gratitude for everything you are doing for my pups and my kin. We are poor folks, but I hope that you and the young wolf over there would accept a cup of tea in this cold night.”
“It would be our pleasure, elder!” answered Lorelei and glanced at Jessup who nodded.
Soon the water in the kettle started boiling. The old binshi opened a small pouch and dropped some herbs inside. The room was immediately filled with a sweet calming fragrance.
“What a peculiar smell, old man.” Jessup’s eyes brightened. “I haven’t smelled anything like this before.”
“Keen nose, young wolf.” The binshi chuckled. “But this is simply a tea of mountain herbs. It’s good for your body when you live in the frozen inlands.”
He let the brew simmer for a couple of minutes and after that carefully poured a bit in the cups. He hesitantly offered one to Lorelei with a deep bow. As she reached out to take it with a graceful smile, she noticed that his hands were visibly shaking. Was her status as duchess Norden still frightening him this much? She hurriedly took the cup and nodded with appreciation. When Jessup received his, Lorelei turned to the old man slightly confused.
“What about you, elder? Won’t you join us?”
His old face got stiff for a moment but then he sighed and lowered his head.
“I am sorry, lady shimshi, but I only have two cups. Besides, this is my present for you as my guests. How can I be drinking before your lordships? The ghosts of my forefathers would curse me if I show such disrespect!”
For a split second, Lorelei felt guilty. She didn’t mean to expose how impoverished the old binshi was. It was just that in Limeria the host was always the first to drink or eat, to show their guests that the food was safe. But this was Norden. Lorelei didn’t know about all the local customs, and Rish had mentioned that every binshi clan has its own traditions and rituals. She didn’t want to offend the old man. In the time she was thinking, he was throwing her worried glances and the shaking of his hands intensified. In a moment of hesitation, she turned to Jessup but the boy just shrugged, his face almost as confused as hers. It was entirely up to her, it seems.
Very slowly she lifted the cup to her lips and took a sip. The hot, slightly sweet liquid filled her mouth with an incredible fragrance. The warmth of the tea quickly spread throughout her body, reaching even the tips of her fingers. Beside her Jessup gulped down his tea, smacking his lips with delight.
“Old man, this is truly delicious! I’ve never had such tea before!”
“I am happy you like it, young wolf,” nodded the binshi.
Lorelei took two more sips, savoring the taste. Jess was right. It was a unique flavor indeed. Still, there was something remotely familiar about it. The fourth sip brought a tingly sensation on her tongue. From the depths of her mind, the voice of master Levi surfaced: “Be careful, child. Do not use it, if you have a choice. This is a sneaky little weed – it is sweet and fragrant but it can also steal your body from you, even rob you from your last breath! It is your last option to immobilize a patent, for it is far too deadly to use on a weak person.”
The cup rolled down from her numbing fingers, spilling its content on the mud-floor. Lorelei could hear a muffled cry from her left, as Jessup’s body slumped on the ground like a marionette, whose strings had been cut. Her heart was pumping like crazy, only spreading the poison faster through her system.
“Yellow… jasmine…” she managed to mutter with her last strength before her own body gave out and hit the ground.
She finally knew why the smell had felt so familiar. It was Yellow jasmine! But how? This herb was native to the dry regions of the South. There was no way an impoverished binshi could have the knowledge and means to procure it. Her vision started blurring little by little, indicating that there were also other herbs mixed in the concoction. The yellow jasmine was a paralytic, not a sedative. Through her drooping eyelids, she could see the old man’s face. He was crying.
“I am sorry, lady shimshi. I had no choice. They threatened my pups.”
With these words, he stood up and went out of the hut. Lorelei felt tears rolling down her cheeks. From the corner of her vision, she could see Jessup’s twitching hand, as the boy tried to fight with the traitorous poison. But soon enough his movements also died out. What was going to happen to them? Her chest tightened painfully. She should have taken some guards with her. She shouldn’t have drunk the tea. But all regrets were useless now. Another thought flew through her fading consciousness – what about Anuk? The child hadn’t moved or made a sound through all of this! She was so little! If the elder had given her the same tea before they got there… it could have killed her!
Lorelei tried frantically to move. Luckily, she had had only a few sips of the tea, compared to Jess. Her body was still somewhat functioning. She called up all her will and braced herself on her elbows, crawling to the little fire in a last-ditch effort. Her numb fingers dug unto the ash and charred wood. The burning heat forced her to let out a stifled cry. The yellow jasmine was just a paralytic. It did not ease the pain. Lorelei, however, embraced the pain. It had removed the fog from her slipping consciousness.
With a hand full of charcoal and ash, she first crawled to Jessup. It felt like ages! She could see that the boy was barely awake. After a few failed attempts, she managed to lift his head a bit and open his mouth, putting some small pieces of lukewarm charcoal inside.
“Jess… swallow…” she mumbled, feeling her tongue swollen and unresponsive. There wasn’t much time left!
Luckily, Jessup managed to swallow everything without choking but almost immediately his head hung down weakly and he lost consciousness. Lorelei didn’t have the luxury to worry about him right now. She felt her fingers stiffen by the second and her mind was slipping. She bit the inside of her mouth and the pain woke her up yet again. Supported only by sheer willpower, she crawled again around the fire. The short two meters to Anuk seemed like miles.
Upon reaching the child, she was relieved to see her chest moving up and down. Still, the little girl showed no response. Lorelei lifted her head and pinched her arm as hard as her weakened fingers could. The child in her arms flinched but still didn’t wake up. Good, this was enough. She pried open Anuk’s mouth and put some charcoal in, then closed it and pinched her nose. Thank the Gods! She too swallowed without choking.
Lorelei suddenly felt her strength leaving her. She slumped down and breathed heavily, inching her charcoal filled hand finally towards her own mouth. It was a tremendous effort, her limbs refusing to follow her orders. The moment the now slightly warm and damp charcoal entered her mouth, the bitter taste of burnt wood and soot stuck to her tongue. It made her cough violently but she desperately swallowed everything. After all the crawling she felt exhausted. The poison had already spread in her body and even lifting a finger felt impossible. Head leaning on the hard floor, she desperately hung to her last traces of consciousness.
A commotion from outside reached her ears – almost inaudible like coming through many layers of cotton. There were male voices, one of them sounded like the elder’s. For a moment he raised his tone.
“NO! You promised not to harm my cub!”
This was followed by a small scuffle, a muffled scream, and silence. Something heavy dropped with a thud next to the door. There was a screech and three shadows entered the shack – two men and a woman. Through her blurring eyes, Lorelei managed to recognize the fake sister Simone.
“Take the royal bitch. And bring the girl too. We are one short anyway thanks to that lustful idiot that couldn’t even handle his broken toys properly.” Her words were cold and full of venom. “We should hurry before the commotion brings the patrols. There are more guards here than in a prison camp!”
“And what about this one?” a burly man asked, kicking mercilessly the helpless Jessup.
“Leave him here. Bring in the old fool’s body and then set the place on fire. The confusion should buy us some time. And don’t forget to leave the duke a nice greeting while doing this.”
These were the last words Lorelei could hear. Her consciousness flickered and died out, drowned by fear and poisonous dreams.
In the cabin aboard the small ship, Noah hurriedly sprang from his narrow cot. As he was sleeping, he had suddenly felt an icy-cold hand had clasping around his heart. He was overwhelmed by terror, pain, and desperation so strong, that for a second his body was like paralyzed. Ever since he was a little child, he hadn’t felt like this, not even on the bloodiest battlefield. Why now? And then the realization came – these feelings weren’t his!
With numb fingers, he dug around his collar and pulled out the little twin-drop. The amulet was so cold to the touch that it almost hurt. At the same time, a ghastly red light was sipping out of it and pulsated like a small beating heart. Noah felt like someone punched him in the gut.
Merciful saints! Lorelei!
He rushed outside and his mighty roar woke up the entire ship:
“All men to the oars! Top speed ahead!”