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I’ve always thought that peace didn’t suit me; didn’t suit me like killing didn’t suit John.
Ever since I was thirteen, my life consisted of fighting, fighting and fighting. It didn’t matter whether it was when killing Blackwell’s hybrids – his vicious, grotesque creatures – or whether it was the actual witch hunt that was the reason that I was tucked in, was given a roof and warm meals after I had lost my parents to the Plague. Which Blackwell had conjured in order to kill King Malcolm and his parents.
It wasn’t that the few hours of the days with Caleb weren’t peaceful, or fun.
They were.
However, these moments had faded into nothing more of a bittersweet memory, things that I had shut away in my mind. Too many things had gone wrong, had happened between us. Trust was broken, unchangeably and lasting. Caleb had changed from my best friend, crush and ally into a traitor, an enemy and finally, a complete stranger.
Yet, John too had stained his hands, had besmeared them with the blood of all the opponent soldiers under the influence of my stigma. He had sacrificed himself for the sake of retrieving Anglia, had battled the strong magic that the Stigma bore – even though Blackwell’s magic and his own were clashing against each other inside of him. All because of me.
The war didn’t pass by without leaving its scars; without retrieving its tributes. But it was over; had only lasted several hours that felt like weeks and days. A victory that wasn’t really a victory because the battle had left Anglia in uproar, in chaos – a country without a king. Like a body without a head.
Some nights I still woke up screaming, the sight of John’s frail, cold body still so vivid in front me. With wounds and blood plastered over his body like the herbs that were growing all scattered in our garden.
But he was there, always, always, always.
“Elizabeth. Elizabeth!” his warm hands were gripping my shoulders, slightly shaking my body. I opened my eyes with a start, a gasp already on my lips. John was hovering over me and his usual soft expression made place for a very, very concerned one when I had started kicking and defending myself in the first moment – still too caught up in the depths of the war.
“Hey, hey. Shhh,” he whispered, his deep voice slowly seeping through my mind like a lullaby.
“I am alive Elizabeth. And I am here with you. Always,” he pulled me into a warm embrace, stroked my back while I clutched his shirt. Hot tears damping the fabric and heart racing in my ribcage.
“I am here.” There was a soft, sad smile on his face while he pressed a kiss on the top of my hair.
A few more minutes had to pass before I slowly came back to my senses; awakened from the nightmare that had trapped me in the past, in moments that I never wanted to relive again. And all the fears, all the oppressed feelings subsided, gradually, eventually.
“Should I go and make you something to drink?” John offered, the darkness of the room was dipping his hazel eyes into cocoa. Despite the shadows, he still looked so beautiful – sometimes it took my breath away.
“No. I’m fine,” I replied instead, snuggling close to his body, breathing in his distinct smell that included herbs and spices with a hint of the lavender soap that the two of us had made several weeks ago.
“Really?” he didn’t sound too convinced.
“Yes. I am already much better.”
He didn’t ask for details, didn’t need to. Because he was well aware of what you had been dreaming about. Even though John never talked about his own demons with you, you could still see the ghosts in his eyes. In these times, he looked so tired, exhausted as if he was back in the days where the two of us didn’t know what the outcome of the battle would be; when the Stigma was stirring him up inside, was destroying his healing magic.
Sometimes I could see his tall, forlorn figure standing in the garden while he was watering the herbs, was cutting others down that he’d hang up in the cottage to dry.
It would always smell really good and you loved seeing how the sunlight was getting all tangled up with the pastel green of the herbs, how the dust would dance in the window until they sailed all the way down onto the ground. He planted spices for you, so you could season the sinful food that – according to him – would be his death.
But the two of us found peace in the little things.
The blue cottage which marked out fresh start, which marked where our new life began after the war. Our shared home. John started to plant herbs in the garden for his pharmacy. I helped him wherever I could, studying alchemy books and botany while working in the small pub in the next town. He had smiled, so bright upon seeing your interest – it definitely was enough to compete with the sun. And when I came up to him after finding the Scutellaria galericulata, a herb that had the power to soothe anxiety, he had leaned down to press his forehead against mine, so much painful happiness glittering in his eyes.
There were kisses. Plenty of them.
When his hands were still stained with soil and plant juice; when they were sticky from the resin. He’d smudge my cheeks, dirty my pale skin as he gripped my face to pull me closer. A chuckle escaped my lips and there was a smile in these hazel eyes that looked like liquid gold in the sun.
There were kisses in the rain, when John and I had been too busy with collecting herbs in the forest, where he grabbed my hand as we ran for our lives, with bubbly giggles and carefree laughter on our lips – trying our best to escape the heavy downpour.
I’d stop in the middle of running and he’d be pulled back, would be slammed against my body, knocking me over. Until we were both sitting warm mud, until our bodies laced. And then I’d stifle his soft laughs with my mouth and make him grab my face so he could deepen the kiss. We’d come back drenched with rain, with shivering shoulders and trembling lips. Yet it was alright.
I found peace in seeing his concentrated expression when he was reading one of his books. The way he rested his head in his hands, the messy dark brown curling around his skin like roots on the ground. Sometimes, I watched him brewing potions, observed how his long slender fingers gripped the mortar, how they moved as they crushed the seeds.
“How are you able to cope with all this?” you once asked after another nightmare.
You had put your arm around his waist while resting your head on his chest. He was softly drawing circles on your shoulder. There was a short moment of silence before he spoke, carefully choosing his words.
“It’s hard on some days. But then I look at you and see that you’re here with me. Alive and safe. And it gets better.” Simple words that were filled with so much affection, so much love – it warmed your heart.
He conveyed his feelings every day. With fingertips travelling over my skin and looks that melted my heart – as if he couldn’t believe that I was here with him; that I loved him. When it clearly should be the other way round. When I should be the one who should wonder why on earth he would love a girl like me.
“I love you,” I heaved myself up so I could press a kiss on his lips, a soft graze.
“I love you too,” John took my face in his hands so he could leave a butterfly kiss on my eyelids, my nose and cheeks, until his mouth found mine for a longer, sweeter kiss. He always showered me with so much tenderness, proving how pure and beautiful his magic was. Because John was a healer, had the ability and to mend and heal.
I’ve never thought that peace suited me, given the fact that the past few years were filled with violence, fighting, and death. I have always asked myself whether I’d miss it, the adrenaline and the thrill of facing death; of not knowing how the ending would be when all of the war was over.
The ambitious Caleb would have been bored.
But I was different from him and these moments with John, these precious times which put me at so much ease – they were perfect.
And there was nothing in this world that I would’ve traded this for.