This is a story I wrote for my creative writing class this semester. It also serves as backstory for one of my current projects–it takes place between the first and second books of the fantasy series. Tiernan’s relationship with food in this story is obviously fictionalized in a lot of ways, but aspects of it are based on the lesser known eating disorder ARFID (Avoidant-Restrictive Food Intake Disorder). It is characterized by a fear of food due to sensory aspects and/or a fear of choking or vomiting leading to extreme restriction and often weight loss, and does not involve body image issues. Tiernan’s issues are also comorbid with Major Depressive Disorder.
I really love writing these characters, and I hope you enjoy!
Tiernan sat down with the tired resignation that came with every meal and considered just not eating. His stomach twisted just looking at the food, and even though his head had that light sort of feeling—he hadn’t eaten a full breakfast or lunch today—he knew that after two bites the food would threaten to come back up. He likely wouldn’t actually throw up, considering it had been at least six months since the last time he had, but still. Why risk it.
The meal in front of him was nice. Sumptuous. Hot venison, green vegetables drowned in butter, potatoes fried to a crisp. It smelled amazing. It always did. It was honestly one of the world’s greatest let downs; he couldn’t taste any of it. He didn’t know why, exactly—he had just been born that way, unable to taste anything.
Normal food ended up as a strange sensation of temperature and texture in his mouth, like eating cotton. Or air that squished against your tongue. It rendered eating as a chore. No, more than a chore, it was a task akin to running fifty miles three times a day; he would rather do anything else.
He did eat, though. Because food was necessary for living, or something like that. Vinea liked to remind him that food equaled life. That didn’t really make him more inclined to eat… not that he’d ever let her know that.
Focus, he chided himself, staring down at the plate. It blurred together into a colored blob in his vision, and he gripped his fork tightly, the metal digging into his palm. Just one bite of everything. You can do one bite of everything. For Vin.
Or I could… not.
He swallowed hard, his mouth dry. After eighteen years of this, it should have gotten easier, not harder. Gods, when would it start to get easier?
He stuck his fork into a potato wedge and let it sit on the edge of his plate, his mind wandering to Vinea again. She would be out in the main dining room, waiting for her food to be delivered. Usually, Tiernan was allowed to dine alongside her and the rest of the royal family of Caypercaillie. Tonight, though, the royals were dining with the diplomatic party from the neighboring kingdom of Merean, and Tiernan had to sit alone in the servants’ dining hall. That wasn’t making things better for him. If he could sit near Vinea, see her face, see her smile… it made him more willing to try.
It helped that they’d made a deal with each other a year ago, after he accidentally had a breakdown in front of her. “One kiss for one bite,” Vinea had said, squeezing his hands tightly. She made good on it, too. But it was hard to remember her kisses when he was in this empty room, the quiet bearing down on him and amplifying the anxious beating of his heart in his chest. He wanted her to distract him, talk to him, kiss him, something. Something to stop him from just staring down at the stupid little potato stuck to his fork, unable to lift it to his mouth.
Just do it. Just put it in your mouth. Come on. This is not that hard.
Tiernan squeezed his eyes shut and thrust the potato into his mouth. It took far too long to chew, but eventually he forced it down.
It was slightly easier after the first bite. Sometimes he just had to start, and then he could quickly take of bite of everything else on the plate just to get it over with. Potatoes, tasteless. Venison, tasteless. Berry compote thing that was supposed to go with the venison, tasteless. Carrots—
Tiernan froze and looked down at the cooked carrots. No one else would have noticed it. That was why he was the royal taster, after all.
There was almost nothing in the world that he could taste. Except for poison.
He started to shiver. Of course, on a day that was already bad, it just had to get worse.
He forced himself to take another bite, letting it sit in his mouth so he could analyze the taste. It was a bit sharp, masking a more bitter taste at the back of his mouth. He swallowed, and a slight sweetness coated his tongue, numbing the roof of his mouth. Caxleon, he was 90% sure. He would have to reference his notebook later, but that seemed right. Difficult to get, incredibly deadly. Just a few drops were enough to stop the heart of a fully grown man—or a young princess.
Maybe it’ll kill you this time.
He shook his head violently. He did not need those sorts of intrusive thoughts right now.
Just like he could taste poison, he was also immune to it. Which was… occasionally frustrating. Useful. But frustrating. Vinea said it was a gift; Tiernan considered it a curse.
Tiernan took a long drink of water to wash the taste out of his mouth, then put his napkin over the plate and quickly left the room.
The door to the main dining hall was guarded, but they let him pass—he was well known at this point. He slipped into the large room, keeping close to the wall, and made his way to the banquet table where Vinea sat with the king and queen. He was mostly unnoticed as he did so; even though he was taller than most people his age, he had very unassuming features and was also thin as a twig. Vinea tried to joke about it sometimes: “You need to eat more so that when I hug you it’s not like I’m hugging a skeleton.” Her voice would always be laced with concern, though. She was scared for him. She didn’t need to be. After all, it was part of why he did try for her… most days.
Vinea looked up as he came over, her blue eyes briefly flashing with panic. “What is it?” she whispered.
Tiernan knelt between her chair and the king’s. “There was something in your food,” he said quietly to her. “We should… probably do something about that.”
He saw the king tense slightly, though his expression didn’t change. The queen glanced over at them when she noticed, her lips tightening in fear upon seeing Tiernan.
“I’ll have the guards lock down the castle,” the king said. “We’ll get Vinea somewhere safe.”
“I can take her with me to the servants’ quarters.”
Vinea shook her head. “If they see me leave, they might know something’s wrong. This could escalate.”
“You’re not safe,” Tiernan said, resisting the urge to take her hand.
She gave him a look. “You know I’m right, though. We need to control the situation, not give them the upper hand.”
He bit his lip and scanned the room. Everyone seemed content—he could see the Merean diplomats amiably chatting with the Caypercaillian council, the guards on both sides appeared relaxed, a few servants hung around the edges of the room, laughing and whispering to each other. No one was acting suspiciously.
“Who had access?” Tiernan asked.
“Anyone, if they were good enough,” the queen said, her voice strained. “The kitchen isn’t as well guarded as other places, and it’s difficult to keep track of everyone. The poisoner might have even bought off one of the kitchen staff to do it for them.”
“We can take all of the Merean diplomats and their staff into custody and question them,” the king murmured, his eyes flicking over the room’s occupants.
“That would take forever, and it might not even be one of them,” the queen said.
Tiernan hesitated. “What if— What if Vinea did die? What if we made them think she had actually been poisoned, then looked for suspicious reactions? It might narrow it down.”
The king and queen exchanged a glance.
“Is there a way to do that convincingly?” Vinea asked him.
“And safely?” the king added.
He slowly nodded. “There are mild poisons that essentially act as a sleeping draught. It would just knock you out for a few hours.”
She looked over at her parents. “I say we try it.”
The king looked unconvinced. “Vinea…”
“What do we have to lose?” she said. “If Tiernan says it’s safe, I trust him. And if it helps us catch whoever was trying to…” She faltered, her face going white. “Kill me. Someone… was trying to kill me…”
“Hey…” Tiernan subtly slipped his hand over hers. “It’s going to be all right. This is why I’m here.”
She nodded and clung to his hand tightly. He wished he could convince himself of what he was saying, but… in truth, he was terrified. Not about the poisoner really; he knew they would catch whoever it was. But even though he had detected the poison this time, what if he didn’t the next time? What if, for some reason, there was a poison that didn’t have a taste to him? What if he missed it? What if she actually died?
He couldn’t lose her. He couldn’t. She was one of the only things that kept him grounded… that kept him from going back to that place he was in four years ago, when he first tasted poison and it didn’t do anything… when it was supposed to do something, but it didn’t…
He squeezed Vinea’s hand. “Should I go prepare something, then?” he asked the king and queen.
They whispered to each other briefly, then the king sighed heavily and nodded. “It’s worth a try.”
“All right. I’ll lace your food with a sleeping draught and have it delivered soon.” He stood, then hesitated. “Don’t eat the carrots.”
Vinea nodded, looking paler. He reluctantly stood and left her as she took a deep drink of wine.
Tiernan practically ran back to his room. He knew there wasn’t much time—the other guests would start being served soon, and it would be strange if Vinea wasn’t. He immediately sat down at his desk and unlocked its bottom drawer, pulling out his blue notebook. He kept a detailed record in it of the most common poisons one could acquire; the list was up to fifty, and he had memorized the majority of their tastes over the past couple of years. Learning them hadn’t been difficult—acquiring them had.
He flipped through his notes until he found one of the milder poisons that he had been thinking of.
Sciphyn – Derived from the flower Sciphynilia vodiefen. Native to the southern areas of Caypercaillie, as well as western Vizruin. Categorized as uncommon. The flower is predominately found in wetland areas.
Toxicity increases by dosage. Two drops will cause a dreaming/comatose state which wears off within two hours. Two to five milliliters will cause a comatose state that can only be reversed with the administration of an antidote (see Chandozyl). Upward of five milliliters is fatal.
Taste: Excessively sweet. Slight tingling feeling on roof of mouth. Acidic aftertaste setting in 10-20 seconds later.
Perfect. He would have to be careful to make sure only the smallest dosage got to Vinea, but it should work for their purposes.
He took out the large box that he kept in the bottom drawer beneath his notebooks and opened it. He had the bottles of all fifty poisons nestled in there, carefully labeled and sealed with wax. He took out the one labeled #17 – Sciphyn, and pocketed it.
He allowed himself a moment to stare down at the bottles. Green and blue and brown glass, all dusty at this point from neglect. He didn’t let himself open this box often. Whenever he did, he ended up fixating on the bottles, his mouth burning with the memories of each taste, one part of his mind screaming out to get rid of this horrible collection, to stop falling into that darkness, to stop entertaining the thoughts of death…
And the other part murmuring seductively for him to drink them all. Maybe all of them together would be sufficiently toxic. Maybe it would overwhelm his senses enough to make everything else go away…
He bowed his head, his hands trembling, and let the thoughts come. There was no point in trying to hold them back now.
It was so stupid. He knew he was loved, by Vinea, by his family. His family had always been so kind. On the outside, they were perfect. Three children, husband and wife, happiness. No conflict allowed. But they didn’t understand him, they never had. Especially after he found out that they weren’t even his real parents… that he’d been abandoned on their doorstep as a newborn… Unwanted and alone. They’d taken him in and cared for him, but he could never be truly theirs, not knowing what he knew.
So he just had to swallow everything that didn’t fit the image. Hide the fact that he could never genuinely match their smiles. Hide the fact that nothing brought him joy, that he had no passions, that even getting up in the morning took all his energy to accomplish. Hide the fact that all he really wanted to do was stop existing.
He tried to convince himself that he was blowing everything out of proportion, but sadness and apathy and pain kept settling over him like a lead blanket, making it impossible to rationalize his thoughts.
Four years ago, he’d tried to get away. He tried starving himself at first. It was easy to stop eating, considering how much he hated food. Three times a day, he put himself through hell trying to eat, but when he lost weight they still demanded to know why he didn’t just ‘try harder.’ Try harder to torture himself. Sure, that made sense. But once he stopped trying all together, they eventually realized what he was doing and started sitting with him during meals, forcing him to eat, not letting him go until the plate was empty.
So he went out, found a less than legal apothecary, and bought the poison. Niacyne. Quick, painless. He was assured of that.
He trailed his fingers over the little blue bottle, #1 in his collection. The first thing he ever tasted. The one that made him realize he would never die by poisoning.
The one that made him realize the gods had cursed him.
Vinea’s in danger.
The thought snapped him back to the present. Vinea. He did this for Vinea. He lived for Vinea. And right now, Vinea needed to die.
He shut the box tight and shoved it into the back of his drawer, then put the notebook back on top of it and locked everything up. He took a breath and composed himself before jogging back to the servants’ dining hall where Vinea’s plate was still sitting, covered by his napkin. He quickly took a bite of everything again, just to be sure nothing other than the carrots was tainted, then carefully unstopped the bottle of sciphyn and let two drops of the ruby liquid fall onto the venison.
Tiernan carried the plate out to the main dining hall, falling in line with the rest of the servants. Vinea met his eyes as he placed it in front of her. She was doing well at keeping it together, but he could see tears welling up in her eyes. Her lips were redder than usual. When he touched her hand, it was ice cold.
“It’s going to be all right,” he murmured. “I promise. You’re just going to fall asleep, and I’ll be right there when you wake up.”
“All right.” She attempted a smile, but it just looked like a grimace. Tiernan tried to smile back at her, then pointed to the spot where he’d poured the sciphyn and stepped back to join the servants along the wall. He watched as Vinea hesitantly cut off a piece of venison and raised it to her lips. He held his breath as she chewed.
It took a couple minutes, but then her eyes rolled back in her head and she slumped forward onto the table. A moment passed before the queen noticed and screamed—it sounded very realistic, considering she was in on it. Tiernan immediately looked around the room, trying to spot anyone acting unusually or suspiciously. His gaze landed on one of the Caypercaillian servants, an older man named Arlo who took a moment too long to react with everyone else. His expression of shock seemed a bit too forced, and he didn’t rush to help.
Tiernan went over to the royals and quietly pointed Arlo out to the king. He looked him over before giving a sharp nod.
“I’ll deal with the situation here. Get Vinea somewhere safe,” the king said.
“Yes, sir.” Tiernan awkwardly lifted Vinea into his arms, staggering a bit. She was tiny—at least a full head shorter than he was with a slight frame—but he wasn’t the strongest and she was still an eighteen year old girl. In the chaos of the room, though, he managed to get her out into the hallway with little issue.
He carried Vinea back to his room and gently laid her down on his small bed. He tucked the blanket up around her and pulled a chair over so he could sit beside her and hold her hand. It was difficult to tell if she was breathing; the sciphyn worked by lowering one’s breathing and heartrate to near death. He held a small hand mirror beneath her nose every few minutes just to be sure that he hadn’t… accidentally killed her…
It was fine. This was fine. He had researched this, his notes were accurate. The dose he gave her was small enough that it would wear off soon, and even if it didn’t, he knew how to make the antidote. She would be fine.
He held the mirror to her nose again. It took a little longer for her breath to cloud its surface this time.
He— He had been right about this, hadn’t he? It had been a while since he’d made that entry… maybe it was wrong… maybe he’d copied down the wrong information… What if he had mislabeled the bottle? What if this was piphyn, not sciphyn? If it was, she would go from a coma to death in an hour… and there was no antidote…
No. No, he had always been extremely careful not to let a mix-up like that happen. His research was thorough. Vinea was going to be fine. She was.
What if she’s not?
Tiernan put his head in his hands and shut his eyes. What was wrong with him? Why did he have to constantly be doubting every single thing he did?
Because you love her. That’s why.
He sighed heavily. He did love her. So much, so painfully much that sometimes it made him want to scream. Because he didn’t deserve this girl, who was so full of sunshine and hope and happiness. She didn’t deserve to have his darkness encroaching on that.
He tucked a strand of golden hair behind her ear, letting his fingers linger against her cheek. She had been the one to kiss him first. He had been working in the castle for about six months when she cornered him after dinner.
“I bet I can make you blush,” she had said, a smirk on her lips.
“You know that isn’t hard to do,” he had mumbled, already feeling heat rise in his cheeks just from her words.
Vinea had laughed. “I really like you, Tier. You know that, right?”
“I— I do now.”
She laughed again before putting her hands on his chest, standing on her toes, and pressing a kiss to his lips.
He had never been kissed before that.
He almost could have sworn that he tasted it.
There was a light knock on his door that caused him to jump. He reluctantly let go of Vinea’s hand and opened the door to see the king standing before him.
“How is she?” he asked, his shoulders sagging like he was carrying the weight of the world.
“It’ll still be a little while before she wakes up,” Tiernan said, letting the king in and shutting the door. “She… seems to be all right, in the meantime.”
The king nodded and slumped down into Tiernan’s chair to watch his daughter. Tiernan awkwardly shifted on his feet.
“Did you get Arlo, sir?” he asked.
“Yes. He was resistant at first, but confessed once he realized we had also questioned the Merean diplomats and ruled them out.”
“He was trying to stop the treaty from being signed, wasn’t he?” Tiernan said, feeling a knot form in his stomach. He probably should have realized it sooner… “I’ve heard him talk before… It was nothing so radical that I could have predicted this, but he’s a traditionalist. Hates Merean ever since they tried to conquer us. He’s been complaining about the treaty for weeks.”
“That is what we’ve gathered from his confession.” The king sighed heavily. “The war with Merean was almost twenty years ago, but there are still people who refuse to move on.”
“Trauma lingers sometimes,” Tiernan said quietly.
“Mm.” He rubbed his eyes and stood. “I really wish I could stay, but the council has demanded an emergency meeting with us to discuss tonight’s disaster. Send word as soon as she wakes.”
“Of course, sir.” He bowed his head slightly.
The king put a hand on his shoulder. “This was a good call, Tiernan. Thank you.”
He flushed. “I’m just… doing my job, sir. And Vinea…” He glanced over at her. “She means everything to me.”
The king gave him a small smile before leaving him alone with Vinea again. Tiernan sat back down and held onto her hand; it felt even colder now, somehow.
She had to be all right. She had to.
Tiernan leaned down and kissed her forehead. “Please wake up, Vin… please…”
Vinea dreamed that she was a bird. She soared through the sky on white wings, the cold air blowing through her feathers.
So this is what freedom feels like, she thought, alighting on a tree branch that overlooked the kingdom.
She knew she needed to go back to the castle. The sun was dipping low in the sky, casting the world in golden light that caused the city to sparkle, as if one of the gods was dumping glitter on all the mortals down below. She wanted to just stay here on this branch, watching the world grow dark. She wanted to see the stars.
She didn’t have to go back just yet. She would eventually, but for now, there was a whole world to explore.
Vinea spread her wings and jumped off the branch, catching a gust of wind that pulled her up into the sky again. She smiled and chirped out a few clear notes of birdsong that were amplified by the wind and the hills they echoed off of until the music resounded through the air around her, loud and overwhelming and beautiful.
She flew in a little loop-de-loop, the feathers on her wings catching the sunlight. Maybe she could just stay out here forever. Just keep soaring until she passed the border of the kingdom, passed the border of the realm, and flew out across the sea into the unknown.
Come home, a voice called out to her from everywhere and nowhere at once. Her father’s voice. He never let her stay out past dark—never let her stay out at all. She had to be protected, after all. Had to be sheltered and kept from the world and any excitement that might come from it.
Well this time, she wasn’t going to listen. She was a bird now. She could just fly away.
The sun was drifting lower in the horizon, and the sky was painted with deep blues and purples that mixed with the darker orange rays that the sun shot out across the ground. Vinea flew into a forest of dense pine trees, dodging between their trunks and branches before turning her face upward and shooting up to the top of one of the tallest trees. She sat there as the sun hid behind the western mountains. Stars were beginning to shine above her, tiny pinpricks of light that swirled in her eyes until she felt almost blinded.
Except—they weren’t stars. They were snowflakes. They landed on her feathers, each a spot of piercing cold that chilled her to the bone. She shivered, trying to shake off the snowflakes, but they stayed stuck to her skin.
Vinea dove off the tree branch and back into the forest, trying to outfly the snow. The shadows of the trees were lengthening, casting everything in a darkness that seemed to almost touch her, caress her, hold her in the coldness and blackness. She tried to flap her wings, but ice formed around her feathers and she fell to the ground with a scream that was quickly dampened out by the snow and the night.
She landed in a pile of snow that was as black as the sky above. Everything felt numb. She could barely force herself to her feet, and even then, she couldn’t do any more than hop through the snow bank, deeper and deeper into the forest.
There were no stars above. No light. The tree branches grabbed at her, tore through her beautiful wings and left her bleeding onto snow that burned into her cuts like acid.
She couldn’t move. Couldn’t sing. Could barely breathe.
The night was supposed to be her friend. She was supposed to be free… so why was it killing her?
Come home… Come home…
She couldn’t find home, though. There was no home. There was just this all-consuming blackness, and the pain in her wings, and the burning cold that froze her in place.
Vinea tried to open her beak to call out, to let someone know that she was here, that she needed help, but no sound left her mouth.
Please wake up, Vin… Please…
She had to get home. She had to pull herself out of the darkness and the cold before it ate her alive.
“You belong here,” the darkness whispered. “Don’t fight it. Surrender. It’ll be easier—no more pain, no more fighting, no more rules and obligations. No more father telling you what to do, no more lover to have to babysit. Freedom. True freedom. Surrender to me…”
Wake up, Vin…
She managed to move one foot forward. She dragged herself through the snow inch by inch, the cold burrowing deeper into her soul with every step. But she shut her eyes and thought of her home. Thought of her family. Thought of Tiernan.
There was a tiny dot of light at the edge of the forest. The edge… she was so close…
“Stay,” the darkness called, grasping at her in a desperate attempt to hold her still. But she shook off its cloying hands and spread her wings, ignoring the pain.
She flapped her wings hard and flew up, higher and higher, until the light was in reach. Just a little further… almost there…
Vinea woke with a violent cough. She dug her fingers into the sheets that surrounded her and retched onto the floor until nothing else would come up, then fell back, breathing heavily. She didn’t have much time to breathe before something collapsed onto her, though, holding her tight. Tiernan…
She weakly raised her arms to hug him back, burying her nose in his shoulder. She tried to use his scent to ground herself—he always somehow managed to smell like old books and ink, like the walking library he was. And he was so warm… She clung to that warmth as she shook in his arms, using it to force the coldness away.
Tiernan’s body shook with a quiet sob. “I— I thought I messed up— gave you the wrong thing or too much or— Vin—”
Her throat hurt too much to reply, so she just hugged him tighter, curling herself into a ball against him.
It took a few minutes to regain her voice, but when she did, she mumbled into his neck, “Don’t poison me again, all right?”
Tiernan let out a choked laugh and lightly kissed her. “I promise. I promise…”
Vinea closed her eyes for a moment, but the darkness sent a knife of fear through her gut.
“Dying’s not fun,” she whispered shakily. “Don’t— Don’t do it. Don’t die. It’s cold and it hurts and… and you’re alone…”
“You’re not alone anymore,” he said softly.
“I know.” She held his eyes. “I don’t want you to be alone.”
Tiernan held her close again. “I won’t die,” he whispered. “I promise you that, too.”
“Good…” Vinea pulled him into a long, gentle kiss. It helped to banish the last remnants of ice that had been clinging to her. “I think you’re my home,” she murmured against his lips.
She felt him smile slightly. “I know that you’re mine.”
“And we’re not going to die.”