by Sienna Gane
The first chapter of a fantasy novel I've been working on. Feedback is welcome!
“Where are we going, Mama?” asked Ryell. “It’s getting dark.”
“There is a young girl that is very sick,” answered Fay. “We go to aid her.”
“Does she have a stomach ache?”
“What does she have?”
“She’s dying, Ryell.”
This confused him. At six years old, he had little concept of death, but Fay did not soften harsh realities from him. He would grow up to know the truths of the world. “Dying? Like Nana?”
He thought on this for a moment. “Then how are we going to help her if she can’t get better?”
“We’ve medicine to ease her pain.” The last thing Fay wanted was her young son to help her care for a dying girl. But when she’d heard that the Sully girl had taken a turn for the worst, she knew she must go. Her husband worked late in the markets and there’d been no time to find someone to watch Ryell. She’d been forced to grab the medicine and rush to the Sully’s with her young son in tow.
The sun was sinking behind the trees as they approached the farm. Flits began to emerge from the trees, small, glowing white orbs with small wings that sang quietly as they floated around, lighting their path. The so-called moon spirits came out only when the sun began to disappear behind the trees. They resided mainly in the forests, buzzing and skirting away whenever humans drew near. Ryell chased them gleefully, trying to catch one in his palm, but they darted out of reach.
By the time Fay and Ryell arrived at the farm, the sun had nearly sank beneath the trees. The farm seemed too quiet; the only sign of life was smoke drifting quietly from the cottage chimney. As they approached, a piercing cry suddenly split the air, causing the flits around them to scatter with frantic buzzing. Then another cry came, low and, pained.
“What was that?” asked Ryell anxiously.
Fay hurried forward, pulling a reluctant Ryell with her. “It’s why we’re here, little one.”
She rapped on the door of the little college. A moment later, a weary-looking old man answered. “Hm?” He peered into the dimming light. “Is that Fay? And yer son, beside?”
“Evening, Thad,” said Fay. “I heard your daughter ails. I’ve brought some medicine to ease the pains, if she’s in need of it.”
“Well, come in, then,” he said gruffly. He ushered them inside the cottage into a wall of heat. A large fire blazed in the hearth and in the back room came the sound of irregular, gurgling breath, a sound Fay had heard only once before. The sound of it made her shiver.
Thad gestured at some old wooden chairs. “Sit,” he said shortly. Fay and Ryell quickly obeyed him as their host disappeared to the back room. Fay sat tensely until he emerged a moment later, carrying a tray of hot tea and bread. He set it on the table in front of her.
“You didn’t have to go to all that trouble!” she protested.
“No trouble,” he said. “Now what’n this me’cine?”
Fay drew a dark blue bottle from her pocket and handed it to him. “An herbal remedy for pain. You don’t need much. Just a small spoonful every few hours. It… it worked wonders for my mother.”
He examined it for a moment, then sniffed and frowned. “Smells funny. Sharp.”
“She likely won’t notice a taste. But if you want, you can mix it with something soft and try to feed it to her.”
He grunted, then disappeared again to the the back room. Fay sighed and sat for a moment, resting her aching feet and back and sipping at the hot tea. Ryell devoured the bread hungrily and Fay remembered with a pang of guilt that she had forgotten to feed him dinner before they left. The bread disappeared all too quickly and then he leaned on her, looking around the room sleepily. “Mama, it’s hot in here.”
“Even after all that?”
Fay pulled Ryell into a hug and kissed his dark curls that matched her own. “Can you wait until we get home? Then we’ll eat a big bowl of stew together.”
Fay watched him fondly. He was a good son, her Ryell. A firstborn to be envied. Her tender expression suddenly transformed into a grimace as a fierce, urgent pain gripped her. She clutched her side and winced. Had she eaten something rotten? She suddenly felt like vomiting all over the floor.
“You okay, Mama?” asked Ryell.
“Yes,” she said tightly. “My stomach hurt for a minute, is all.” Was the sickness returned? She hadn’t thrown up in months, and never at night.
“Is the baby kicking?”
“I don’t think so.”
Ryell felt her stomach curiously as Thad emerged from the back room. “I gave ‘er some of that me’cine,” he said quietly. “Seem to be helping.”
“I’m glad. Keep giving it to her every four hours or so and it should help her sleep. Is there anything else you are in need of, Thad?”
He shook his head and watched as she struggled to get to her feet. “It ain’t fit fer a girl in yer state with a littl’ one to head back as it is. Yer free to stay on here.”
“I’m afraid we must be going,” said Fay. “My husband doesn’t know we’ve gone. He’ll be wondering where we are, I’m sure.” The pain in her stomach suddenly lessened and she took a deep breath, feeling stronger. “And thank you for feeding us. It was most kind.”
“No trouble.” Before she could move to leave, he spoke hesitatingly. “Would- would yeh like to see me Meranda? She hasn’t had tha’ many visitors...”
Fay stared sadly at the old man before her. No one should ever have to watch their child die. “It would be an honor to see her.”
His shoulders sagged with relief. “‘Course, hard to say what she senses of anythin’. But I like to think she knows what’s goin’ on.”
With Ryell playing quietly in the front room, Fay followed Thad to Meranda’s bedside. Fay had hardly considered the girl a friend, but had known her brother Ronan well, who was closer in age. She did know that Meranda had once been a shy, plump girl with fiery red hair and freckled cheeks. Now her head was swathed with bandages, her mouth slightly ajar, with breath coming in jagged gasps. Dark bruises surrounded her eyes.
“Yeh should’ve seen her before yeh came,” Thad whispered. Words began to rush out of him in a sudden stream, more than she had ever heard him speak. “Her eyes’n open, starin’ at somethin’ ‘orrible, and tears jes leakin’ down her face. An’ tha’ scream she would do… jes ‘orrible. But then’I give her some of tha’ medicine, and she’n calmed right down. Now she jes lookin’ like a angel.”
Thad stroked his daughter’s hair gently as the words continued to roll unbidden out of him: “She was out ridin’ on her favorite horse, Maise. She ‘ad been gone a while and ain’t come back, so I goes lookin’ for her. Found her on the ground not talkin’- I figure horse mus’ of thrown ‘er and hurt ‘er head real bad. We got ‘er in bed and the healer called, but he jus’ say we gotta wait, see if’n she wake up, but she ne’er woke...”
Fay set a comforting hand on his shoulder as his voice rose in grief. “Just gen’ worse and w-worse, havin’ these shakin’ spells and bruises growin’ on ‘er face. Well, now the healer, he… he say there is’n anythin’ to be done.” He paused and wiped a tear from his check with a shaking hand. “’Er brother Ronan is suppose to come. I been sendin’ him lett’rs an’ all, and tol’ him she’s… that she’s not got much time. Says he’ll a’come, but I jes ‘ope he can see ‘er ‘afore… ‘afore…” his words drifted off and he stared strickenly at his daughter.
“I’m sure her brother will make it,” Fay assured him, though she had no idea if this was true.
He said nothing. Fay reached for the girl’s pale hand and gripped it tightly, silently saying her goodbyes. She turned to Thad. “Thank you for letting me see her. Please send word if you need anything.”
“Aye,” was all he said. He knelt at his daughter’s bedside and spoke no more. Fay left the man to grieve and went with her son quietly out of the house
Her thoughts were somber as they strolled along their path. How apathetic fate is.
Night fell, dark and sure, as she and Ryell trudged on down their path along the river. Their only source of light was the moon above and the small flits floating around them. About twenty minutes into their journey, Ryell suddenly tripped on a branch and fell to the ground, banging his knee on a rock. He held his knee and began to cry, a loud whine that revealed his true six-year-old self.
“Let me see, dear.” Fay struggled to crouch with her large belly in the way and examined his knee carefully. “Looks right as rain. You ready to walk a little farther with me? We’re almost home. Then we can have some dinner—”
“No!” howled Ryell. “I— want— home— NOW!”
She spent a few more minutes consoling him, but he would not be calmed. All the while. the night grew darker around them and Fay knew her husband was home, wondering where they were. “Climb on my back,” Fay said finally. Sobbing, Ryell obeyed, though it was difficult for her to get down low enough for him to climb on. He finally got settled and Fay began to walk slowly, painfully, forward, Ryell’s arms digging into her neck. She hadn't gotten three meters when a massive pain spread across her stomach.
Fay fell to her knees, Ryell tumbling off of her back. Not now, not now not now not now not now…
“Mama!” Ryell sobbed. He pounded his little fists into the dirt. “I want home!”
But Faye was helpless to comfort him as another contraction ripped through her body. She gasped, unable to speak. How could this be happening? Her time was close, but it was still too early… perhaps these were false pains, perhaps they would pass… but another one, stronger, then another, and now she had fallen to all fours, moaning with pain.
Ryell abruptly stopped crying and stared at her with confusion. The contractions ceased for a brief moment but Fay knew what was coming. In her first labor, it had taken only thirty minutes from the time of her first contraction to the delivery of Ryell. The midwife, who’d barely gotten there in time, had been shocked. “You’re meant for having babies,” the woman had said with envy.
Faye staggered to a tree and leaned against it, unpinning her cloak and placing it beneath her. She sank to the ground and closed her eyes as her body was again racked with terrible pain. Once it had ceased, she opened her eyes, breathing heavily, and beckoned her son close. They were still a mile away from the village. Their only company were the flits and the dark pines.
It appeared there was only one option.
“Ryell,” she hissed, grabbing his collar and looking into his huge, fearful eyes. “You must listen. Remember the baby in me?”
He nodded wordlessly.
“Well that baby is ready to come out. Right. Now. I need you to run home and get help. Just follow the path along the river, understand? But you mustn’t…” she gritted her teeth as pain and nausea rolled over her. “But you mustn’t walk too close to the water or the river will take you. You follow the path until you get home or find someone, and then you tell them where your mother is and that I need help. Understand?”
“Yes,” he whispered.
“Go,” Fay said. She kissed his cheek fiercely. “I love you, Ryell. Go, now.” He began to run, his little feet pattering in the dirt, flits floating after him. She prayed now to whatever god they belonged to. Lead him home.
And then she was alone.
A numb terror fell over Fay. She could not bring herself to think of the dangers Ryell might come across nor the physical trials that awaited her and her unborn child. Her mind focused on survival and refused to fear.
What would she need? She tried to think back on Ryell’s birth. A midwife would be nice. Or a husband. Or anyone, at this point. Water... but she had no pail to carry it in. A knife. She would need a knife to cut the cord. She reached in her boot and found the dagger she kept on her person at all times and set it beside her, hand shaking slightly. What else… blankets for the child? The night air was awfully cold and there was no telling how long they would be exposed to the elements. She used the dagger to cut a long section off the bottom of her skirt to use as a swaddle.
Fay settled back against the tree, her face slick with sweat despite the chill of the night. She would birth this child alone. Plenty of woman had done it before, in a time before midwives and healers, in conditions no better than these. It would be fine. She closed her eyes and took deep, even breaths, preparing herself for the physical trial ahead.
The contractions began again, rolling rhythmically through her body. Fay gritted her teeth and tried to keep herself from crying out. There were beasts in these forests that were drawn to the cries of the vulnerable. But as the contractions increased with intensity, Fay forgot where she was, consumed completely by the immense stress on her body. She could hear herself screaming, but heard it as if from somewhere far away.
The next thing she became aware of was an immense pressure, then the horrible feeling of tearing, and finally relief and agony all at once. Before she knew what had happened, she had the babe in one arm and the knife in the other. She went to sever the cord but it was tough and gelatinous and more difficult than she’d expected. Finally, she broke through and tossed the knife to the side. She held her baby to her, crying. The babe cried with her. The sweet sound of new life echoed through the forest.
“We did it, child.”
Trembling, Fay went to swaddle the babe, noticing something as she did so: A girl! She had a daughter. But she hadn’t even picked a name yet. Her mind dwelt on the possibilities, a sweet distraction from her present circumstances.
But it was simple. The name came to her, as clear and calm as a mountain lake. She stared down at her child and tried it out: “Anja?” More decidedly: “Anja.”
Yes, Anja would be the child’s name. And damn my husband if he tries to fight me on it.
Fay leaned back against the tree and held her child. She could feel blood leaking below her, moderate but constant. A wave of tiredness hit her and suddenly it took all she had to keep her eyes open. The babe in her arms started to cry softly, but Fay couldn’t draw up the energy to feed her. Her eyes closed and she drifted.
Something nudged her foot. Fay’s eyes flickered open, her vision hazy. It was still night, the forest dark and cold around her, the river running steadily by, moonlight reflected on its drifting waters. A few flits buzzed around her. It was peaceful. Why was she sitting in something wet? And what was that burning ache? Confused and dizzy, she blinked her eyes, rubbing her face. Wait… the baby…
She looked down. The babe slept peacefully in her lap. How long had they been waiting? Perhaps Ryell had gotten lost, or had fallen in the river, or had ran into some awful beast… she tried to stand up with the babe gathered in her arms, but groaned and fell back as the world spun around her. She was still bleeding and terribly sore. If she tried to move, she wouldn’t get very far.
A light fog descended on the river and began to creep into the woodland around her. Wolves howled in the distance. Fay’s heart started racing. It had been too long. If they were to survive, she’d need to walk home. If only she wasn’t so damn weak...
Water, Fay thought suddenly. I’ve lost a lot of blood. I need water. She nestled the child against the tree and tried once more to stand. With great effort, she rose and walked the short distance to the river. She gingerly knelt down on the shore and used her hands to cup the flowing waters and bring them to her lips.
As she drank, a stillness seemed to settle around her, as if the whole forest was taking a breath. A shiver crept up her spine.
She could hear it- a movement. It came from the river.
Something began to emerge from the mist. Something big. Fay watched in horror as a giant rose up from the waters, rivulets dripping down it’s black form. It bore the general shape of a man but had neither lips nor eyes. It was featureless, completely made of writhing, swirling shadows.
Demon, Fay thought faintly as she backed away. She had never seen one but it was exactly as the tales described. Nearly thirty feet in height, the waters flowed past its calves as it walked. The demon’s arms were abnormally long compared to its body and swung loosely at its side. A gaping, toothless mouth blew out a steam of hot air. A river demon. It had to be. Was it stalking her, as demons were said to do, about to devour and destroy?
Fay watched in horror as the giant stopped its march and slowly turned. Behind her, nestled in the tree, Anja began to cry.
“No,” she pleaded, staggering backwards. “Please, no….”
She turned away from the river and stumbled towards her baby. All of the sudden, she felt a chill pass through her and what little strength she had drained into nothingness. She could feel herself falling, the wails of her baby fading, as she sank deeper into night.