Posting something different today. This is a prologue of sorts, a glimpse of a fantasy tale in the making. It’s a project that’s been with me for a while, and I’ve got a couple of science fiction projects to finish before this one gets off the ground… but… well, here it is.
Update January 15, 2016: This story has moved from back-burner to front-burner for me. More on that as it develops!
Prologue – Birth
The flames burn – blackened wood crumbling and settling into the throbbing orange glow at the center of the hearth; sap sizzling as it melts out of twisting wooden veins; coarse bark shriveling to ashes. She is on her back in the narrow bed, knees drawn up to ease the labour pains; the wool blanket tucked around her. The flames are so close, almost within reach, their yellow light flickering across the pale skin on her bare arms. But just beneath the fire’s thin weave of warmth there is winter: dark winter night, with the smell of snow and frost on its breath, exhaling through the log walls.
The fire is important. Tonight, it means something besides just warmth, but she is not yet sure what. The flames are speaking to her, blistering tongues whispering charred words of cinder and smoke. And when she is able to listen to it, she can almost understand what it is trying to tell her.
But it’s difficult to listen because of the pain and because of the women fussing over her. Their intruding voices are distant and featureless; their irrelevant words smooth and calm as mud, while their knowledgeable, cool hands prod and caress – touching her skin, holding her hand, offering a drink of water. Just a sip now, no no dear, not too much, not now when it’s so close or you might throw it all up over yourself.
And it’s also difficult to hear what the fire is trying to tell her because of the presence.
None of the others have noticed the presence, yet she can sense it as clearly as she can sense the heat of the fire and the pain in her back and belly that is slowly twisting the child out of her.
It’s right there, in the far corner of the room, just beside the door where the room is coldest and darkest. Something is watching her from the shadows there, waiting for her to give birth. She’s already tried telling the others, but they don’t understand. They don’t feel it: they’re blind and deaf to this power that has managed to shield itself so craftily in shadows and cold.
You are not welcome. She mouths the words as she stares across the room, past the fire, but she knows that even if it can hear her, it doesn’t care.
While cursing that the chore of giving birth is stripping her of so much strength, she gathers the thin strands of power still within her control – grasping hold of every fiber she is capable of commanding. Ever since the pains started yesterday and she first sensed the presence, she has been doing this: trying her hardest to ward it off, fight it off, fend it off, whatever it is.
As she tightens her grip the flames burn brighter – flaring up with a new ferocity – but they can’t penetrate the shadows. Then the pain comes again and she knows the moment is close now: this new life is so close, there is just a thin veil of pain left, a sheer membrane between death and birth.
When the assault on her body and the child still inside of her finally comes, it is like a slash of jagged ice across her belly: the power of it is so strange and so strong and so wholly other than anything she has ever encountered that it squeezes the wind out of her. She gasps for air, hands spread over her stomach, fingers splayed, yet all the tendrils of tightly held craft and power almost slip from her grip, and she knows that the presence just tried to claim what it came for. She does not scream and when she closes her eyes for a moment she can still see the flames. They flicker, they shrink, but they still burn.
Did I resist? Was it enough? Was I strong enough?
She holds on to the shield for another moment – the shield that she has spent this entire day and the previous night knitting into the air and fire – she holds on to it while the child is wrenched out of her into the heat of the flames and the cold of winter.
No, she thinks and the despair of it is like swirls of frost across her damp skin. I was too weak. I failed.
But then: a tiny cry. A tiny voice.
Will he be strong? she wonders as tears of relief prickle her eyes and nose. Will he be strong enough?
Then, she is touching him, holding him, and she knows as soon as she cradles him to her breast what has been taken, and the pain of knowing and not being able to undo it, is almost more than she can bear.
But he’s at her breast, peeking up at her with dark eyes. His skin is red and wrinkled, stained with mucus and blood. She glances over at the darkness across the room, but whatever was there is gone now. The women fuss and hover, cooing over the baby, telling her not to cry because he is healthy, because he is strong, because he is alive. They don’t feel it. They don’t feel the absence, just like they did not feel the presence.
“I’m sorry”, she whispers to the child, kissing his damp, dark hair. And then again, in a sob as she allows herself to let go of all the craft she tied together to ward off the shadow: “I’m sorry I let it take you.”
© Maria Haskins, 2015