PROLOUGE

 

“I know it is here,” Franny said to Tasmin.  “I can feel it.  The wind, the rain, the raging sea.”  And she could feel it, feel the power.

A few threats, and she’ll crumble.  Threaten William, and you will be able to do what you wish.  Franny thought of her beloved Eric Lavoussier, who was now holding William hostage while she got the  amulet that they required.  He would have his revenge and they would have true power.

And she was right.  Tasmin, who stood square jawed and ready to challenge, drooped a little and she went into a hidden room, bringing forth the Heart of Ithalia, a prison of one of the most powerful Sea Witches that ever lived. 

It was gray and lumpen.  She snatched it from the other woman’s hands and pressed it to her chest, sinking herself in, trying to hear the call.  Oh, this would be worth an awful lot of money.  Eric would do away with his enemies, and they would flee.  They would start a new life, her and her lover.

“No, shush, I’m trying to hear what she’s saying,” Franny said to some foolish thing Tasmin asked her.  It was annoying.  She could hear nothing, but she was not going to admit that to her.  If William, who was about as magical as a brick, could sense something when he held the amulet, surely she must?

“She’s saying you made a mistake, angering my sprites, and a worse one, when you angered me.”  Tasmin said, and flicked something at her.  A pin, long and dark, struck through the webbing between her fingers to the stone.  She could feel blood being pulled from the tiny wound, she felt as if she were being drained.

“The stone absorbs life and magic,” Tasmin was saying, but all she could think of was the pin.  She yanked it out and dropped it, the hole in the stone was starting to glow. Franny tried to pull free of the stone, but she was stuck fast.  Shaking it did not work, and when she grabbed the stone with her other hand to yank herself free, the skin of her hand seemed to fuse with the surface of the stone.  “I can’t let go of it!  It won’t let me go!”

It pulled at her.  Her bones ached, and she could feel herself crumbling.  The roaring in her ears blocked out everything, and the light from the stone was so very bright.  She was being pulled, sucked into that tiny, tiny little hole the iron pin melted into the amulet.

And then, there was silence.  Just floating in the black.

“Eric?” she whispered.  She waited in the darkness a long time, whispering his name.  What would happen now?  Would he kill William and his worthless brother?  Would they have revenge?  She hoped so.  Oh, she hoped so.

“Revenge and love.  I understand revenge and love,” a voice said.

“Help me,” she whispered.  The silence after that almost felt like a thinking silence.  It was comforting and terrifying at the same time.

The world shifted, the blackness rolled away like fog, and she was laying on the floor of the cave.  She placed her hands on it to help her up, but it did not feel cold or rough, just there.  She could push against it, and she did. 

She stumbled in the darkness, turning, trying to get a sense of place.   A tiny speck of light drew her gaze, a hole the size of a pin.  It winked and disappeared.

“Love and revenge.  I have forgotten much, but not those concepts.”  The voice behind her was like the whisper of the water lapping against a stony beach.  Franny turned toward it.  The woman that stood there, head tilted, had been beautiful.  Her face, or half of it at least, had a soft, other worldly perfection.  On the other half, the skin had been flayed away, and all that was left were bones made of coral; rough, twisted, filled with holes.  A ghost of a fish flicked into sight between cheek and jaw, then flickered away, showed up in the empty eye socket and swam back and forth as if caught.

Franny straightened up.  Something about this woman made her want to be on her best behavior.  “I am sorry to have intruded, but…”

“One does not intrude in a prison.”  She spoke slowly, as if unused to it.

Franny felt at a loss.  She tried again, explaining herself to the woman who stood, quiet and formidable, in the center of the room.  She looked over her shoulder, hoping a miracle had happened and that the wall had opened again.  She looked back at the woman who was studying her, head tilted, expressionless.

Finally, she asked, “Am I really dead?”

 

CHAPTER ONE

You may recall that there was a time in the Kingdom of Berengeny that a retired SeaCaptain married a HerbMistress, and that they lived, more happily than not, in the rooms above a chocolate shop.  The shop was in the sea-port of Azin Shore, far to the South of the kingdom, away from the easy magic of the North.

Wise women were not thick on the ground, so banging on the door at all hours of the night was no longer a surprise.  This night, the knocking was accompanied by panicked yelling.   Tasmin opened one eye, groaned, and slowly pulled herself up.    

“I shall see what they want,” William said, already stumbling across the floor to open the window.   Cold air flooded the room, making her long even more to snuggle back down into bed and go back to sleep.

Instead, Tasmin rubbed her eyes and yawned hugely before taking the cover off the light stones, their bright glow telling.  “We’ve not been abed long,” she muttered, stretching.  A foot reached out from under the covers and onto the cold boards of the floor, and she flinched, and flung herself from the bed with a  .

“Aye?”  William half yelled, half whispered out the window in deference to people not married to the only person who could serve in the Wise Woman’s place . 

“Tis my wife, William.  She’s having the baby!”  Joe, a large boned, earnest man had no such care for the neighbors.

“And why are you not talking to Dr. Havelock, just down the street?” The time, just coming on to two, Tasmin noticed, was not making him charitable.  She pulled on her clothes right over her night dress, shaking her head to try and wake herself up.  The buttons did not want to go in their holes.

“A man helping to give birth?  Are you mad, William?” was the response.  “Can your wife not come?”

“A traditionalist, I see.”  Tasmin said.  “Tell him I shall be but a moment.” 

“We will be down shortly.”  His hand stroked her shoulder as he reached for the breeches folded over the back of her chair. 

Tasmin was wiggling her feet into her shoes as quickly as she could. “Oh, sweetheart, go back to bed.”

“You shouldn’t be going out by yourself,” he said, stuffing his night shirt into the waistband of his breeches.  She hooked her fingers around his, forestalling him. 

“Joe can protect me on the way to his wife perfectly well,” she said with a smile.  “Besides, ‘tis her first time and if the baby is born before the dawn I shall be pleasantly surprised.  If I need, I shall find someone to guide me home.”  

A little body landed on her shoulder.  She could not see it, but she sensed one of her clan of Wind Sprites nestling into her hair.  “And no, you shall all stay home,” she said to the sprite.  “Last thing the young woman needs is to think ghosts are invading her birthing room.”  She put her hair up in a messy bun.  “All of you, to bed.  I shall be fine.”

William kissed her on the cheek, then pushed a pin into her hair a little better.  “I do have to be up early, if you are sure…?”  She rolled her eyes at him and he laughed.  “Thank you.”

“Sleep well.”  She grabbed her cloak and ran into her workroom, where she threw some useful items into a basket.  “And I meant everyone…” she said to a sprite worrying at her hair.  “There is no sense in anyone else in the family being discommoded.”

Joe grabbed her arm the second she opened the front door and started pulling her away, barely giving her time to secure the lock.   “I can’t believe it, Mistress Tasmin, I can’t believe I’m about to be a father,” he said as they raced down the cobbles.  She was tempted to ask him to slow down, but one look at his face, and she knew it would do no good.  “It’s been years since we married, we’d given up hope.”

The second time she almost tripped she pulled her arm out of his grip with a hard wrench.  “If I am dead by the time I get there, I will be of little use to Meggin.” 

He stared at her, his eyes weighing her.  She took a step back, warding him off with her basket.  “And no, you will not carry me.  We will walk at a pace that assures that I will arrive in breath and in one piece.”  She walked under her own steam, quickly as she could as she was not a heartless woman, while Joe hovered around her as if he could usher her along.

The moon was but a sliver in the sky, creating a dim, grey light that made the night seem even colder.  She tried to adjust her cloak as they went, down the hill and towards where the houses gathered closer together.  The yards slowly became smaller, but the homes were well taken care of, and you got the feeling that those who lived there did alright for themselves.  Not well to do, precisely, but not impoverished.

Still, it was dark and lonely, and not for the first time Tasmin thought about the real town Wise Woman.   I hope Cherise is alright.  No word for weeks…I only hope she has not been harmed and the rumors that she took off because she was overwhelmed are true, rather than anything more sinister…

Joe’s small house was half way between Dockyard Hill and the merchant district and shared walls with others on either side. Not that she had much time to study the place.  Joe pretty much pushed her into the house, and she had to watch her feet to keep from stumbling on the sill.

The basket was deposited on the floor.  She plucked her gloves off and tossed them, and the cloak, on a chair next to the door, trying to get herself in the proper frame of mind.  I do so hate being a midwife.  But there is no one else until Cherise returns, or they declare her gone.   She and Cherise hadn’t had much to do with each other, true, even though Tasmin was a herbalist and their knowledge overlapped.  Cherise did not have much interest in befriending a woman she saw as competition, even though Tasmin had tried her best to reassure her that this was not the case.  In their few interactions, she found the other woman shy, uncomfortable, and terribly green, but Tasmin dearly wished she was here to do her job.  

She shook herself, and put on her kindest and most reassuring mien, and got to the task at hand.  ” Now, Meggin, let’s see how things look.”  She smiled at the mother to be, patting her knees.

She was wrong, about the length of time she would be busy.  Meggin was a natural, her mother was a great deal of help, and even Joe, rambling back and forth, was not completely without his uses.  Soon, it seemed, Tasmin was carefully looking over the baby before letting the new grandmother take the baby away to swaddle it.  She smiled when the new baby boy was handed over to the overjoyed parents, and turned to the things that needed doing.  Cleaning up the necessary mess associated with childbirth, making sure all was well. Joe was beaming, stroking his wife’s hair, holding his little son reverently. It had not been nearly as unpleasant as Tasmin had feared.  This was the third baby she had delivered, and each time she went to the task with some dread in the back of her mind, as if she would make some horrid mistake.  But, all was well, her dress wasn’t ruined like the first time…that was the Night that Shall Never Be Mentioned, no arguments over who the real father was, like the second.  Maybe things did get easier with practice. 

She went out into the kitchen with the newly minted grandmother.  “Good birthers in my family,” the older woman said.  “I knew it wouldn’t be any trouble at all.”

“It was well done,” Tasmin said delicately, she could almost feel the next question out of the other woman’s mouth, and wanted to duck out before it came.

“So, you and your William will be having a baby soon, I suspect?”

“No,” Tasmin said, “not for a little while yet.”  She smiled to cover up the awkward silence her words had produced and to keep the smart remark that started to form at bay.  “I will be back in a few days to do the Mating Spell.”

“I thought you had to do it on the birthday?” 

“Oh, that’s just tradition.  We’ll do it on his birthday next year, but we can get started in a few days.  Less traumatic for the little one.”

The woman thought this over, then nodded in approval, to Tasmin’s relief.  She wasn’t sure if she could do a spell right now, she was so tired.  “I’ll get Joe to walk you home, then.”

“Oh, ‘tisn’t far.  I don’t want to drag him from his new family.”  Or wait for him.  “I am quite comfortable making my own way.  Let me know if you need anything…” and she was out the door before she had to argue any further, wrapping herself in her cloak, holding her basket firmly in hand.  She looked around her.  Nothing but emptiness all around.  Good.  The only light was the moon, in this part of town no one wasted money by putting candles in the windows.  Light Stones were plentiful (if slightly expensive) in the North, but somewhat ruinously expensive and hard to get in the South.  She had had as many as she needed when she was teaching  the university in Tarnia, and her parents had brought her and William some as a wedding present, which she was grateful for.  They were safer than candles, and, in the long run, cheaper since one did not have to replace them, just maintain them.  Still, it would have been nice to have a little more light.  Up the hill there will be some torch stones, perhaps they have not faded yet.  Torch stones were cheaper because they were roasted in fires to bring the light out of them, and put in tall torch stands.  The heat worked down the iron posts and were a favorite place for people to stop and warm their hands.  Not likely to be warm this time of night, though.

She sighed.  She was concentrating on trivialities, but to be honest, she was a bit bothered.  Three months.  I have only been married three months, and already…’tis like my only purpose in this life is to give birth.  The idea of childbirth made her uneasy, and not just because she was seeing, up close and personal, how messy and painful and dangerous it could be.  She was uneasy because she did not feel like she had really settled in yet.  The shop was adorned by bottles of cordials and tea blends, her contribution to the family business, but her studies were suffering.  I simply need to balance it all out.  Once everything is sorted, I shall be able to get back to my work.  She was happy.  Her husband encouraged her studies, and was gratifyingly pleased when she did something directly related to the shop.  He was loving, kind, and sweet, and would make a wonderful father, but the idea of actually having a child filled her with the desire to run away screaming. 

Tasmin turned at the end of the street.  An unseasonably late snow made the sidewalk icy under her feet.  She took her time making her way up the steep hill.  Do I miss home, I wonder?  She slipped a little on the stones, so she stepped into the gravel and dirt that lined the roads, her feet crunching in the ice and grime, but feeling much more secure.  She played with the thought in her head, remembering her old office, gone now to her replacement, longing for the vast libraries of the university where one could easily get lost for hours.  But in the end, I would always rather have William.  Thinking of snuggling next to him in the warmth of their bed made her move a little quicker.  It was gone four, and she fancied the sky out towards the water was lightening, but the truth was that it was very dark, very bitterly cold and very quiet.  Mayhaps I should have gotten Joe to walk me back after all, she thought, wishing she had someone strong to help her up the hill.  But she had been…and still was…impatient to get back to her bed, which would be wonderfully warm since sleeping next to William was like sleeping with a small furnace.  He didn’t even seem to mind when she put her cold feet on him, which she was quite eagerly contemplating, since her toes felt like they would shatter if she stomped her feet too hard.

The rumble of icicles sliding off roof edges and crashing to the paving stones made her jump.  Her foot slipped and she reached for one of the torch stands.  She pulled herself up, clinging to the rough iron.  She was right, the light had died out, and the post held but a little heat to fortify her.   Her spine straightened, shivering as if cold fingers had worked their way into her clothes.  It wasn’t just the cold of the night.  Something felt off, and all her senses reached out, trying to figure out what it was.

The wind picked up, whipping and whirling around her.  It felt different, alive was not the right word, but aware. She tilted her head, feeling for her Wind Sprites, but she could not sense their warmth and spirit.  It had teeth, and texture, and purpose.  She pushed herself away from the post, shivering, but no longer from cold.  Something very basic inside of her, something very small and primitive, wanted her very much to start running.  Instead, she picked up her basket, took a deep breath, and started walking again.

At the top of the hill, the snow spun and shimmered in the cruel wind.  As she neared it, she slowed.  Tasmin didn’t want to step into that whirling, dancing wall of snow, but she mentally kicked herself and kept going.  Home and warmth, Tasmin.  Not so far, now.  Just stop letting your imagination draw strange fancies where nothing is.

She crested the hill, and the wind fell silent.  The snow fell away, except for one spot, where it swirled and settled, drawing details that glowed faintly in the darkness to become the figure of a woman.  Her head turned slowly, looking over her shoulder at Tasmin, and then the rest of her followed suit, the snow falling and lifting and resettling on the curves and folds that outlined the silvery figure.  She stared at Tasmin, moving her head this way and that, as if trying to focus on the face in front of it, considering. 

The ghost tilted her head, reaching out one hand slowly, making as if she would touch Tasmin.  Tasmin backed up a step.  The hand was getting closer, and she panicked.  No herbs, no amulets would help her, but she did have another talent, thin and unpracticed, but still there. 

She raised a fist, palm towards the figure, and opened it quickly, warding the touch away.  “Forbidden,” she whispered, and a spear of air shattered through the snow.  The ghost disappeared, and the world seemed to right itself, the wind died down and everything seemed to be normal. 

She stepped carefully around the newly formed pile of snow and continued her walk home.  Determined not to think any more about it, she stripped off her clothes and fell into bed, half wondering if her exhausted mind had not conjured the whole thing. 

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