Dreaming of Darkspires
C .N. Lesley
Rain from a late autumn storm mingled with Marjory’s tears. All day long she had waded through brooks and knee-deep fields of hay in her flight, and at night slept under hedgerows, but as twilight drained into darkness on the fourth day, rain finally washed away scent trails. A few hours of downpour and the hounds would lose her track. She had heard them in the distance ever since she fled the capital city. Times she waded through brooks to lose them, only to hear the belling of the vargel hounds in the distance.
The hunters looked for a stout lady in court clothes and a well-dressed man. How would she survive without Maynard? Double-damn their ill luck at running into First Born tribesmen, poaching game in the emperor’s forest. Her last sight of her brother was with an arrow through his chest, being dragged into the shadows while she hid under a bush. A tremor shook through her.
Stars, let it rain. The emperor’s witch-finders surely wouldn’t chase an old peasant woman dressed in homespun? The barter she had made with a Goodwife at eventide gave her a chance to vanish from sight and hopefully lose some of her scent into the bargain.
Thunder crashed, a shuddering rumble, almost drowning out a lonely wail of something young and frightened. She followed the sound to a weak mewling that came from a bundle of rags lying on top of a large boulder. Marjory pulled aside a wet covering clothe to uncover a naked baby crying with eyes tight-shut. Her heart pounded against her ribs. This child wasn’t of the Angressi race. Was this a First Born trap? They wasted their time with her if so for she had nothing left of value to steal. Why leave a child so young, though? Exposed like this the babe must surely die, or was that the intent?
A soft helmet of dark hair covered the baby’s head, and fine dark brows winged upward to the temples of the girl-child. Why would the tribes leave a First Born brat in Angressi lands where tribesmen stood out among the fair-haired folk? Why not the wild places they roamed? She had heard of them abandoning the second child of a set of twins. An ill-luck child, the tribes called it, believing it had no soul. No shadows moved among the rocks. A flash of sheet lightning showed a heel indent heading away from the child. Not an old track, or it would have washed away in the rain. Marjory began to back away, but a different cry turned her soul to ice. A wyvern swooped bat-like in a search pattern across the sky, dark against flashing thunderclouds. Great leathery wings as large as sails slapped against the air, and a long tail lashed as the beast began to circle. A gush of flame erupted from its maw, the clarion call of the brute echoed. The stench of brimstone drifted down to earth. Marjory shuddered, snatching the child to her breast to kneel, curling around the infant to muffle the cries lest the beast hear and come to them. She called on every shred of her witch’s earth magic to blend with rocks and dirt. The smell of damp soil rose up over them like a cloud of flies disturbed from a corpse. A slow, sleepy sense of hard endurance seeped from the rocks into her bones, her skin, and her mind.
Tendrils of fire came from the thoughts of the wyvern. It scoured the ground for heartbeats of anything living, passing over small creatures. A clear picture came to Marjory; the beast hunted man-meat.
The deep, dark core of growing things oozed through her feet, up her body into her hands to spread from her fingers. Over her and around the ill-luck child it spread in a mushroom of power. Magic of fire and air sifted over the area she occupied. For a moment the beast hovered while Marjory’s heart almost burst from her chest, but it moved away into the eye of the storm.
The child whimpered, shivering. Marjory tucked the baby under her cloak and pushed herself up to fight against wind and rain. She couldn’t leave the child, not with the wyvern searching. The creature might come back if it found no better hunting ground. She couldn’t leave the child as food, even if the baby was going to slow her down. The beast would get Marjory’s scent from its tiny victim and track her. With a child in her arms, she had to find shelter and soon. Maybe a villager might take in an ill-luck foundling for a servant if she ever found a settlement.
A flash of lightning showed a larger formation of rocks to her left. Marjory took that direction, head down against the driving rain. One foot after the other she went, fighting against exhaustion after days on the road without a trace of any sheltering cave to rest for a night. A line of trees grew into a forest ahead. That could be better than nothing.
Light rain trickled through the canopy overhead as Marjory felt her way amongst the tree trunks, slow, wary of roots. She stumbled when her foot caught in a cart rut. A path but which way led to habitation? Blind in the drowned night, Marjory knelt to grope in the dirt, awkward with one arm holding the child safe. In a dryer patch, under the shelter of a tree, she found the indent of a horseshoe with the open part towards her. The track led west in the direction of the misty dragon star formation visible through the trees.
Following the cart track saved time, for the ruts were wide enough to guide her, and the rain drizzled to an end. At least the babe now slept, its dark head nestled against her under her shawl. Marjory’s skin crawled at a First Born so close to her. The child hadn’t killed Maynard. She had to focus on innocence. Moonrise gave her a light of sorts to guide her way, and then she heard a familiar sound ahead. Wheels creaked, and a harness jingled—a carter. Not men on fast horses’ intent on catching a witch, just a simple carter.
“Is anyone there?” she called. “I need help.”
“Come forward, then,” a man’s voice answered. “I can’t be backing up in this weather.”
He sounded friendly. Fifty more paces in the ruts and she made out the dark shape of a cart ahead. The welcome sight speeded her.
The man clambered down to help her those last few yards. He took the well-wrapped child while she climbed up, and then he passed the babe back to her with the gentleness of a father. Even a hard wooden seat felt better than walking, especially when the carter pulled his oilcloth cape over both their heads. Marjory stretched out her feet, letting her bare toes splay in the rain and watched the mud sloughing away. She wasn’t used to going barefoot, but had to look the part she played of a peasant woman. The child now rested in her lap and settled against her like a burrowing kitten. She pulled the coarse covering over its head to hide the dark hair from the man. What would the carter think to have aided a First Born babe when most Angressi men reached for a weapon at the sight of a tribe member?
“So what is a mother and babe doing out on a night like this?” The carter heaved up to take the reins once more. A click of his tongue sent the horse plodding forward.
“My man died, and I had a sister who lived in this region, but she had moved on,” Marjory lied. “I reckon I am looking for a place.” She didn’t want to explain the babe just yet.
“Happens.” The man grunted. “There’s not many as would take on a Goodwife with a child. Got any skills?”
“I am a healer.” Under the cover of her cloak, she drew a sign of fortune with her forefinger. The hunters wouldn’t think of her as a healer. She had done many things to people but never healed, unless relieving them of a burden could be counted as healing. Still, she knew how from the hearth witch who thought it would be amusing to corrupt a court lady.
“Ah well, that’s different.” Some of the defensiveness had had gone out of his voice. “There’s a shack just outside my village that be empty. The last healer did live near there afore she croaked. Reckon you could have that.”
“I could make a living?” Marjory tried to keep her tone level. Luck was with her … and yet why hadn’t the last healer trained an apprentice? Was this a bad place?
“Ah, could at that,” the gruff voice came back at her out of the dark. Rain hissed around them and the horse’s hooves now made a dull plopping noise, but Marjory’s spirits lifted. “Reckon I could spread the word. There’s a need. Who do I be a saying is our new healer?”
Marjory thought about the offer, for such a place would suit her. “Goodwife Margie,” she said. Not living in a village and subject to their curiosity, yet still a respected member of the community for all that. That fitted in with her plans, and she could use the babe as a servant. No other Angressi would object to a First Born working a lowly position in their village.
Having said his piece, the carter seemed content to sink into his thoughts. Marjory preferred it that way. She didn’t want any questions before she wove a good story to fit her needs.
As they rattled through a glade, a shadow blocked moonlight, followed by a toe-curling bellow from far above. A faint touch of fire magic curled around the treetops and an uncanny echo rose from the child in Marjory’s arms. The baby whimpered, its little arms flailing, but the carter didn’t seem to notice. He couldn’t feel power coming from the child. A witch in the making?
She bent to the girl-child to whisper. “Hush, baby, I’ll not let the evil wyvern get my little girl.” Best the carter thought the child her own until she had settled into her new role, for he would call her a Goodwife with a child if the hunters questioned him. Marjory needed the disguise the child gave her, and if the child’s power was strong…? She cradled the infant a little tighter.
The ill-luck child opened eyes that swirled with silver lights. By the holy Emperor, not just a First Born babe. She had taken a child marked as a sacrifice to the wyvern. The beast would hunt its prey forever.
The old shack creeked in the wind, whistling under the gaps in the rafters the two women could never repair on their own. This night was different. Old Margie, Raven’s foster-mother knew it, too, and had out her scrying bowl.
The sense of threat increased as the storm outside thundered through the night. Raven lay, tense, on her straw pallet, watching Margie scry by the light of their fire. The old woman looked up, her expression fearful and then Raven knew. The villagers will come for them. Pictures of burning brands fill her mind. They thought of them as witches, and they were right in a way. But they do no wrong. Raven and Margie healed and gave foreknowledge, nothing else, no matter who asked.
There was a burned-out shack in Delvin’s Hollow to bear witness to what happened when the likes of the pair of them fell out of favor. That dwelling had stone walls still bearing the mark of flames. The wise woman must have cooked alive. Their ending would be quicker as their shack was made of wood.
“How long?” Raven hugs her knees with her arms. Where would they go? Who would take them in?
“Not yet.” Margie tips the scrying water into a cookpot to start a new stockpot. The villagers thought the water came from a sacred spring, but Margie got it from the brook behind their dwelling.
“We are good until a man and his cart pass through, and that won’t be until high summer. He bears a black cloud over him, so perhaps he will die before he gets to us.” She grinned, her few teeth on rare display. “Much can happen on the road. Aye, much.” Her features dropped into sadness. “I had a brother once.”
Raven knew how the rest of this went for the old woman made a habit of going off in spates of rambling. Sometimes a brother featured and sometimes impossible stories about life as a highborn lady. Margie’s mind often wandered of late. Raven stopped listening to her, knowing how the story went by heart.
A great bellow sounded from the heart of the storm. The wyvern was out hunting. Raven shuddered, thankful to be under the earth magic wards Margie made and renewed every year. The beast might hunt but under this cover it would never find them. The fine tendrils of fire magic scrolled down from on high to meet the hardened husk of earth magic resistance. No, he wouldn’t find them while they were safe her, but what if they were forced out, into the wilderness? What then?
To find out what happens next get Darkspire Reaches at all the Amazons for 99c