Today, somehow, I managed to reach 1k followers on Twitter.
Yeah, I’m not sure why they’re following me, either.
But! In honor of this momentous achievement, I bring you a new short story, never before made public.
Angels in Their Places is a 10k word tale (yes, it’s a bit long) of dark magic and survival. It’s also been burning a hole in my computer for the last few months, so it needs to be read.
In advance, thank you for reading! I hope you enjoy this latest fantasy short of mine.
Angels in Their Places
In the dark. There is no moon, not tonight. The light of the stars prick holes in the sky, the morning near enough she thinks herself capable of reaching up and plucking one of them free of the black fabric above. There is mist carried off on every breath, nothing she can see but the moisture is there, warming her hands as she blows into the thin weave of her gloves.
Twigs snap beneath her feet. She is light, almost frail, her shoes soft, but still he looks back at her, the pause in his progress a chastisement enough. Her head goes down again, eyes searching over a ground she cannot see. Twigs, leaves, roots and branches that cause her to stumble, catching at her skirts like sharp grasping fingers.
He takes her arm, grip tight as he guides her forward. More than the detritus of the woods around them, pieces of stone digging into the balls of her feet. Sharp bits of gravel. A lane before them, nearly hidden in the dark, but it pulls them onward. A gate, then. Stone columns rising upward, against a horizon boasting the first touch of grey dawn. A gate torn from its hinges and left abandoned, vines growing over it, dead leaves curled over iron.
The house will be ahead. She takes her eyes off the ground, looks instead for the line of a roof, chimneys, the touches of man’s imprint rather than the rough shape of nature making her trip on every other step.
They walk for so long she begins to believe the house is gone, already desicated and sunk back into the woods, wood and glass and metal reclaimed by the ground it used as its foundation. Bricks beneath her feet, pushed upwards by the roots hidden in the dirt. But the bricks lead to steps, to a door. The stairs creak at their intrusion, rotted and sagging in the middle. A knocker sits in the upper part of the door, but he raises his fist instead, tapping on the wood with his knuckles.
She stands behind him, heels hovering over the last stair. She does not fidget, does not move. Her fingers ache from the cold, the damp invading her joints. But she stays still, arms crossed in front, hands resting over her abdomen. She does not think about what will happen if there is no one here. She did not dare ask him before they arrived. As long as the fear remained unspoken, she told herself it had no power.
The door does not open. No scuffling meets their ears, even the scuttle of squirrels or birds stirred to life by their arrival. He walks along the porch, peering into windows, hands cupped over his brow as if there is enough daylight to block out. He returns to the door and knocks again, hard enough to shake dust and grime loose from the frame.
He continues pounding on the door, ignoring her. He takes a step back, waiting, then reaches for the knob, shoulder tilted and ready to shove against the wood if needed. A grinding sound comes from the metal, followed by the thump of his shoulder, the side of his boot as he pushes. It sticks at the bottom, where paint bubbled and peeled, wood rotted and swollen, and then it breaks free with a shudder, swinging inward with another squeal of protest from the hinges.
“There is no one here.” He speaks under his breath, the words made a curse by his tone. A dark entryway before them, the only light the faint greenish grey of sunrise seeping in through the open door behind them. He stalks forward, towards another door, not looking back to see if she follows. The floor beneath their feet is clear, recently swept. He moves from door to door, peering into rooms cold and empty, while she runs her gloved fingers over the edge of a narrow table set against the wall of the entryway, her fingertips rubbing at dust that is not there.
“Leon,” she repeats, loud enough to draw his gaze towards her. His eyes gleam in the light from the doorway, his hair dark and unkempt so that it disappears into the shadows still clinging to the edges of the hall.
His mouth moves, about to speak, when a step sounds behind him. He turns as a figure moves into the entryway from the back of the house. Black and silver, a dark gown beneath a face like paper and crowned with white hair.
The woman looks at both of them, her black gaze settling on the man. “You should not have come here.”
“You are mistress of this house, no?” He touches his hand to his chest and gestures to the young woman, still standing behind him. “I am Leon Desprez and this is my wife, Elizabete. She is your niece, I believe? Or great niece?” The pleading quality of his speech is meant to cajole the older woman into admitting them into the house. Elizabete knows the tone, the tilt of his head, even the curve of his hand, meant to beckon, to persuade. He will use his charm as one would attempt to cast a spell, to enthrall the woman before him. “And you are Mrs. Galle, yes? Your husband—”
“My husband is dead. As are my children.” Her gaze flicks towards Leon. Dark eyes, her face tucked into shadow so that the black of her pupils seems to leak into the circle of her irises. “I do not want you here.”
“But my wife…” He cuts himself off with a gesture. Towards Elizabete, towards the forward slope of her shoulders, the curve of her swollen abdomen beneath her arms and her gown and the edge of her cloak.
“You should go,” she says.
Leon is quick. He reaches behind him, pulls out the knife secreted there. The blade is sharp and short and clean, the handle nearly hidden by his palm so the point appears as nothing more than another appendage.
A crack as the old woman’s head hits the edge of the doorway, lips parted though she makes no audible protest. A drop of red forms at her throat, where the tip of the knife digs into her flesh.
“You will give us food and shelter and anything else we ask of you.” He slides the knife a half inch to the right, opening her flesh. “You are her family, and you will protect us.”
A crack shows in the older woman’s facade. The tip of her tongue darts out to touch at the corner of her mouth, while a breath slides out in resignation. “Come,” she says. “Be sure to shut the door behind you.”
Those first movements in her abdomen. Not a flutter, or a sensation of butterflies. Instead, a steady tap, tap, tap, a pause, and then another. A bird in a cage, fighting to escape.
She closed her eyes, an imitation of those around her, heads bowed in prayer, tips of fingers bunched together as they trace a figure of the cross before them. Her hand rested over her middle, waiting for another movement, another signal of life. Her lips moved, not in prayer, and yet a plea for that connection to never be severed.
Beside her, a woman began to cough. A young creature, newly married, white lace draped over dark hair. A handkerchief pressed to her mouth, shoulders jutting forward with every cough, tears leaking from the corners of her eyes. A half a minute slipped away, the woman’s breathing returned to normal. A quick fold of the handkerchief, white linen, yellow embroidery along the edge, spots like ink stained and spreading across the pristine fabric.
The rugs beneath her feet are threadbare, worn down in the center to the thickness of a dishrag. Elizabete looks right and left, at bare walls, sparse bits of furniture bearing the marks of brooms and too many years of hard use. But everything is clean, despite the paper peeling from the walls, the window panes boarded over, those not shaded by the various brush and vines growing over the outside of the house.
The one called Mrs. Galle leads them to a room. Stark walls the color of bleached bone. A wide ornately-carved bed incongruous against what few other furnishings fill the space. A mirror on the wall, silver speckled so what Elizabete sees of her reflection seems to deteriorate before her eyes.
Leon walks into the room, peers out the window, raises a figurine from a shelf to squint at the bottom before replacing it. “We are safe here?” He looks out the window again. The full light of day has arrived, yet a mist still clings to everything. The sill bears a sheen of water on the rotted paint, the melted frost soaking into the already saturated wood.
“No more or less than before you arrived.”
The older woman stands in the doorway. Blood stains her throat, disappearing into the black fabric of her collar. She’s made no move to wipe it away.
“I want a fire. Can we have a fire?”
“You will draw everyone’s attention towards us?”
“I will be warm. My wife will be warm and comfortable.”
Elizabete steps towards the bed. Sweat prickles beneath her arms, between her breasts. She touches the edge of the blankets, smooth and folded with precision at the corners.
“Leon,” she says.
His hand darts towards her. The knife is put away again, but his fingers hold her in place, as stiff as the blade he no longer holds. “I will take care of this.”
Mrs. Galle looks at them both. “No fires during the day.”
“Why not? There’s nothing but fog and-”
“No fires until nighttime.” She lifts her chin. The blood on her throat has dried to a darker shade, tinged with rust.
“Very well.” He speaks as if Mrs. Galle is the one to make the concession. He remains near the window until they are alone, until the door is closed and it is only him and Elizabete in the room together.
He crosses towards her, places his hands on her shoulders and grips her hard, fingers and thumbs pressing deep into bones that once carried a greater amount of flesh. A kiss on her forehead, on her cheek, and then a longer one on her lips.
“You should rest now. I will keep watch.”
“For what? You do not believe we’re safe here?”
He steps forward, gathers her into his arms, his chin ducking down to rest on the top of her head. “I will not believe us safe until every last one of them is dead.”
Awake, now. She cannot see the ceiling above, the brief spate of fire they enjoyed burned down to coals that glow crimson in the grate. Beside her, Leon sleeps with an arm thrown over her hips, nestled in the covers and below the rise of her abdomen.
The baby kicks hard against her ribs. She winces at the discomfort and bites down on her bottom lip. Beneath the bed is the chamber pot she has already used several times during the night, but she does not want to move, does not want to disturb the man curled up along her side.
Around them, the house is quiet. She listens for the creak of an old building, the settling of walls and stairs or the scrabble of mice and birds within the walls and chimneys. Here, silence drenches everything and she blows out a breath between her teeth, listening to the soft whistle of it to assure herself her own voice has not been smothered as well.
Another kick, and she grips the side of the bed, sits up slowly and lets her legs slide upwards beneath Leon’s embrace. Her stomach tightens as a flush spreads through her chest, her neck, and burns her ears.
Not tonight. Every evening she repeats it to herself. Not tonight. Not yet.
Sideways she squirms, slipping out of the bed and bending down to reach for the chamber pot tucked just out of sight. When she is finished, she stands with her hands on her hips, thumbs digging deep into her back. Not tonight. In bare feet she crosses the room and picks up the poker to stir the fire. A few sparks, a shifting of the coals, and a faint renewal to the previous glow, allowing her to see through the gloom.
She scratches at her collar as she walks towards the window. Sweat beads at the back of her neck, soaking her hair there. The drapes are thin and threadbare, frayed at the edges. She slips the fabric between her fingers, feeling for dust to pill against her skin. It is all clean. In daylight, the room was swept and dusted. The bed made. The linens stale but washed.
Beyond the windows, darkness. Fog, perhaps. Or a lack of moon. Her nose pressed against the glass, she exhales and lets the blast of her breath dampen her cheeks.
The thump against the glass throws her backwards. She staggers away, arms reaching for nothing, heels catching on the rug. A bird, perhaps? A falling branch or shutter? A glance towards Leon, but she has no desire to wake him. And so she stands in the center of the room, hand at her throat, waiting for her pulse to slow and the baby to calm its rolling inside her.
The second sound comes from the door, a knock followed by a soft scratching that drags downward to the floor. She looks around to see Leon startled awake, one elbow propped on his pillow as the haze of sleep rapidly fades from his eyes.
“What?” His mouth shapes the word.
She shakes her head and steps away from the door, placing herself nearer to the dying fire.
Leon takes the knife out from beneath his pillow. He nods towards her own, the cushion still bearing the indentation of her head. “The pistol?”
She should not have left it there, she knows. He had told her before to always keep it with her, that she did not have the grace and agility to leap across and fetch it from some distant place should she come into need of it.
He snatches the pistol from beneath her pillow, squinting in the dark to check if it’s still loaded, still ready to be used. A sharp cut of his arm through the air and she scuttles nearer to the wall, grabbing the poker as she passes it, holding it in front of her as if it were a shield.
His ear to the door, she watches the rise and fall of his shoulders cease while he holds his breath to listen. There is the window to her left, the door to her right. She cannot survey them both. Inside her, the baby shifts, jutting out a foot or a knee with enough force to ripple the fabric hanging over her abdomen.
“Not tonight.” The whisper slips out of her, eyes closing for long enough to send up a prayer. “Please.”
Leon wraps one hand around the doorknob, the knife held in the other. The pistol is tucked into his waistband. He prefers the knife, she knows. The silence of it. An intimacy no bullet or powder can provide.
And he waits. There is quiet on the other side of the door, no sign of a step or scratch in the corridor beyond. Beneath his fingers, the doorknob rattles, wrenched from the other side. He turns it and yanks the door open, knife poised as he stares out into an empty hall. All is darkness further on.
“Stay here.” He does not look back as he says it, does not give her the opportunity to protest. She thinks he will hesitate, turn around and give her the pistol he swiped from beneath her pillow. But he slips out into the dark, pulling the door closed behind him.
“Come away from there. Come away!”
Fire burned on the other side of the window, the houses of wood and thatched rye going up as quick as kindling. She clung to the sight of it, letting it sear a place into her memories.
“They will be here next!”
He grabbed her arm, above her elbow, wrenching her away from the window. He held out a bundle to her, hastily knotted. Another glance towards the window, at the spots of torchlight as large as candle flame, and she ducked her head down and followed him.
She awakes on the floor, her back against the wall. The poker lies across her lap, the fingers of her right hand wrapped loosely around it. Light shines through the window, the drapes half-opened where she’d left them the previous night.
Leon is not there. She looks up at the door, innocuous with its scuffed paint at the bottom, brass hardware dull but for where myriad hands grasped the doorknob before her. And yet she wants to recoil from it, as if her every breath draws it towards herself, inhaling and exhaling in tandem with her own lungs.
The light from the windows is pale. As a child, she remembered sunlight, dark green leaves of ivy fighting for space on the outer walls beside climbing roses of dark pink and white. But the roses are dead now, the ivy strangling the house, forcing it back down into the ground.
Her heels slide on the floor as she struggles to stand. The poker catches on the rug, tearing a hole in the already thin weave as she rolls to her side, shifts onto her knees and stands up. An ache in her back, burning in her hip as she tilts her weight from one foot to the other.
She cannot leave the house. Leon took the knife and the pistol. She kneads at the pain in her back, digging her knuckles in until her breath hisses between her teeth. Her memories of this place are too fragmented, Mrs. Galle little more than a stranger. It could be dreams, she thinks, fooling her into believing she had spent some time here in her past. But she recalls the roses, the sunlight illuminating the dust in the air, the mingled aromas of comfrey and sage and lavender as strong as any tangible thing.
Still holding the poker, she crosses to the window and looks out. Mist drifts through the trees, dark trunks and leafless branches curved towards the house, as if a constant wind had shaped them. She could open the window and touch their bare branches, break off a bud already shriveled and dead.
The house… everything about this place is more rooted in feelings than in memories. Snatches of light and color, a bubble of joy, sadness unraveling it all as quickly as a loose thread. The grip of someone’s hand around her own, leading her up a flight of stairs, the security gifted to her by the person’s mere presence.
The doorknob is cold beneath her hand, so much she almost mistakes it for being damp. She hesitates before stepping into the corridor. There is no light beyond what spills out from the room behind her. Sconces in the wall are cold and dark. A lamp on a narrow table boasts a smoke-blackened glass chimney and an inch of oil in its clear, etched belly, but nothing more.
Leon’s name hovers above her tongue, dancing on the back of her teeth, but she cannot bring herself to say it aloud. The stillness of the house is stifling, making her voice thick in her throat. She swallows it down, tightens her grip on the poker, her only weapon, and attempts to retrace her steps from where Mrs. Galle led them the day before. But the hall holds no familiarity. A wrong turn at some point, a doorway missed, and now she is further into the house, through to a kitchen that looks to have been connected to the house at a point beyond the building’s initial construction.
Food is laid out on a table. Fresh bread, cheese, onions, mushrooms. She stands in the doorway, surveying a neat and orderly space. A basket of apples off to one side, red-skinned and plump. Potatoes, a rich golden color, already peeled and soaking in a large pot of water. Dried herbs hang from the ceiling in neatly tied bunches. And there is the aroma of cinnamon from somewhere, if she is not mistaken. And everything clean, everything in its place.
Elizabete does not move from the doorway. She does not trust that the food is meant for her, and yet her weight shifts onto the balls of her feet, as if the mere sight of it is enough to tip her forward and the rest of the way into the room. And into the room she goes, drawn towards the food, the smell of the herbs, the light suffusing the room in a pale, somehow translucent glow.
She looks at the food. It is finer than the house surrounding it, flanked by its blackened trees and crumbling gates. And the path that led them there, a nearly-overgrown track they lost sight of several times as they followed it through the woods.
Then she eats. Slow at first, the food earthy and rich. Soon faster, stuffing her face before she has swallowed the previous bite, not bothering to sit but standing in front of the table. It is more comfortable this way, the baby not pressing as hard into the underside of her stomach.
It is not until the plate is half empty that she realizes someone else is in the room with her. The scuff of a step on the floorboards is what catches her attention. But not Leon. She knows the scrape of his boots, the rhythm and strike of heel to toe. It is not him.
Mrs. Galle stands in the doorway, where Elizabete had hesitated only minutes before. In the daylight, the white of her hair is more shocking. There is no grey or silver, only the pure white, like the fog around the house coalesced into something corporeal.
Elizabete stares at her, unabashed in her focus. She has no memory of this woman, and yet she cannot separate her impression of Mrs. Galle from what she recalls of the house, the rooms, the fragments of colors and scents and images that tell her she has spent time here before.
“Did you sleep well?”
A half-eaten slice of cheese is returned to the plate. Elizabete’s other hand sweats, her palm slick around the handle of the poker. “Where is my husband?”
Mrs. Galle blinks. Not a twitch or a shudder in the rhythm of her breathing. “I do not know?” She spreads her hands, an upswing in her voice changing the reply into its own question. “Has he left you, then?”
“There was a noise…” She licks her lips. “In the hall, last night. He went to see…”
“And he has not come back?” Her lips form a thin line across the lower half of her face. “Old houses, you know. They make such sounds when you think all should be quiet. I do not know why he went to such trouble.”
“You have not seen him?”
“I thought he was still here with you. I have not heard nor seen anything of him.”
She cannot tell if the older woman is lying. So she raises the poker, holding its point towards the middle of the woman’s chest. “I want to look around the house. I want to see for myself.”
Mrs. Galle spreads her hands apart before they return to her skirt, smoothing out the grey fabric. “I will not stop you. This was once your home, too. But do you not think you should finish eating first?”
Her tone does not match with her behavior from the previous evening. All conciliatory she is, a calm and acquiescent host. Because Leon is not there? Elizabete steps back from the table and does not relinquish the poker.
“You slept through most of yesterday and all of last night,” Mrs. Galle continues. “I will bring you more, hmm? And something to drink as well. The cheese is salty and you will want something to rinse it down with.”
Her gaze follows Mrs. Galle as the older woman moves about the room, fetching a mug, setting a kettle on the stove before she glances inside and stokes the smoldering logs with a ladle left at hand.
“Is there anyone else?” Elizabete ventures to ask while Mrs. Galle stuffs a handful of dried herbs into a metal ball she drops into the bottom of the mug.
“Here?” Mrs. Galle looks up. Dark eyes beneath white brows. “With me, you mean?”
“There was someone at our door last night. Someone tried to come into our room.”
“And that was when your husband… he left you?” Mrs. Galle gestures towards the platter of food at the edge of the table, now abandoned. “You have not eaten since you’ve arrived. You would harm yourself this way, after journeying so far? Please, do not stop simply because I am here.”
Half a plate already eaten, and Elizabete feels as if she could consume everything else the house’s larder has to offer. But still she hesitates, and the older woman steps forward, hands buried in her apron as she scrubs at her wizened knuckles.
“You would risk your child, hmm? The one you’ve already fought so hard to keep?” One white eyebrow arches upwards. She picks up a piece of food from the plate and takes a bite. “Do you think I’ll poison you?” she speaks around a mouthful of bread and mushroom. “You’ll eat.” Nothing of cajoling or a request in her tone. “You’ll eat and then we’ll see what we find.”
She begins eating again until she knows she’s taken too much, but the plate doesn’t seem to empty, Mrs. Galle adding a few pieces more here and there, small morsels that seem to appear at the edge of the dish by mere sleight of hand alone.
“How long did you travel?”
Elizabete looks up at the question, her teeth working over the stem of a mushroom. “A week or so.” Nine days. Ten nights. With only a few days of food between them when they had begun. Feet rubbed raw inside her boots, wrapped in strips torn from the hem of a spare shirt to cushion every step.
The older woman fetches the kettle slowly steaming near the fire. She pours the tea, the leaves escaped from the metal ball swirling about the rim before they begin to settle and sink down to the bottom. “Drink.” She nudges the cup towards her, takes a sip from her own. “It will be good for the baby, for when your time comes to have her.”
She glances around the room again, her gaze quick, as if woken from a light sleep. “Her?” Her attention settles on Mrs. Galle. She ignores the tea.
“Oh, it is a girl. I know simply by looking at you. I’ve always known such things.” She smiles, chuckles softly in the back of her throat. “It is a gift I have, you could say. I’ve seen many babies born in my lifetime. It is simply a matter of reading the signs.”
A girl… Leon had wanted a boy, had taken to placing his hand over her abdomen and declaring his love for his son. It was why he allowed Elizabete her way, he said, to save them. To save his son, his name, his blood.
And yet she knew. Mrs. Galle was right. Elizabete had known as well, had sensed that the infant would be a girl. But she could not tell Leon, could not bear to see the disappointment, the fear in his eyes.
“You worry, hmm? What he will do when he discovers the truth?”
Elizabete’s hand stills over the plate, fingers curling back before she can snag the last corner of bread.
“He is not…” But she cannot finish the thought. She sweeps her hands across the front of her gown, a surreptitious brush across her abdomen and where she can feel the pressure of a foot pushing out and towards her. “He will love her. I do not doubt it.”
The tea is nudged towards her again, a steaming mug aromatic with spices; cinnamon, she thinks as she picks it up and lifts it to her lips. But, no. A deeper flavor than that. One that invades her nostrils, clings to the back of her throat, settles deep in her stomach and her sinuses at the same time. And it is sweet, cloyingly so. Yet she continues to drink, unaware until that moment how little liquid she’s consumed over the last few days.
“We will see,” Mrs. Galle says, as Elizabete takes another sip. “We will see what we will find.”
A body beneath the tree, propped against the base of the trunk, mouth and eyes and nostrils rimmed with black. It had outpaced them now. Rather than leaving the darkness behind, it ran alongside them, surrounded them.
He stepped forward as if to search the body, but she held him back. Hands on his arm, fingers tugging at the sleeve of his coat, pulling at threads she had mended only weeks before. Already they unraveled again.
“Let go,” he said, and sidestepped the figure, the fire he’d made and left to burn out, a thin tendril of smoke still drifting upwards, gone when a push of dirt and brown pine needles was kicked across it.
He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and retrieved a pistol left on the ground, inches from the dead man’s hand. While he wiped at the weapon, over and over again, she studied the fingers curled above the dirt, the black of his fingernails, of the veins that still bulged darkly beneath skin turned grey.
“Here.” He held the pistol out to her. She shook her head, arched her back until she felt the dig of the knife’s handle beneath the waistband of her skirt.
“You should leave it,” she said. But he didn’t hear her. Or made no show of listening. A lift of his boot-clad foot and he pushed at the dead man’s shoulder, watched as the body tipped slowly to one side and slumped with a dull sound onto the forest floor.
The pain flares upwards, unfurling like heat from a fire, like water, flooding her, drowning her in warmth until she gasps for breath. It recedes again, leaving her tired and blinking as if only just woken from a restless sleep.
The baby’s time is soon. The tightening in her abdomen comes with more frequency, the ache in her back a relentless thing. She straightens up when the worst of the pain passes, when she can breathe again without needing to count her way through every exhalation. Mrs. Galle stands beside her, offering nothing. Not a touch or a word, only watching from beneath her white brows.
Elizabete puts her hand to her back as she looks the older woman in the eye, a challenge. She does not feel well. She has every wish to sit, to lie down, to curl onto her side and grip the edge of the bed as the pains wax and wane.
“Go on,” she says. A nod of her head punctuating the order. Go on, Elizabete thinks. Find Leon. Leave this place. Leave this place that threatens to slide under her skin. And before the baby arrives. Before they are found again.
Mrs. Galle leads the way. On the ground floor, from room to room. Elizabete expects dust and disuse, worn and abused furniture covered in dust cloths, the chewing of mice, the haze of cobwebs in every corner. But all is clean. All is in place. She cannot connect this with the outward appearance of the house, as if one of them is an illusion, only she does not have the strength to know which is the reality.
“Upstairs, then,” Elizabete presses when all of the rooms and closets on the ground floor have been looked in. She will find him. She repeats this to herself as she begins to ascend the stairs behind Mrs. Galle, her hand on her abdomen, clutching it from underneath, holding it to her now, now before the child is no longer so close.
Mrs. Galle opens the first door at the top of the stairs, a slight squeal from the doorknob announcing their entrance to whoever might be waiting inside. But there is no one. And yet Elizabete lingers, hand tracing the whorls of the iron bed frame, tugging at tassels fringing the edge of a lamp’s shade.
“This was your room.”
The old woman’s voice gilds the room with memory. A dollhouse, just there. A small stack of books, the fabric of the covers worn thin from use. A small pair of shoes. A hairbrush, the handle cracked partway down.
Elizabete blinks and the things disappear, swept back into the catalog of memories that hovers just beyond her reach. It is as though all she can recall is the shape of the house itself, the silhouette of bricks and intricate crenellations set against the backdrop of sky and trees that led her here.
No, the both of them. She remembered. Leon had come with her, had convinced her to come, drawing out a path from what little she could recall of her time here. She looked around the room again, the recollections of the past swept away, so all that remained again was the bed, the table with its lamp, the desk with smudges of ink staining its wood.
Why can I not remember?
It is the question she wishes to ask, the one that dies on her lips at the sight of Mrs. Galle’s expression.
“Why are you here?” The old woman’s eyes drop down to Elizabete’s abdomen before they dart back to her face. “To travel so far, and in your condition. It could have been very foolish, had you not made it here in time.”
“You are my aunt, no?” Elizabete despises the ignorance displayed in the question, wincing at it and covering the wince with a sniff and a small cough. “My mother’s-”
A warmth wells up within her, rising rapidly through her chest, her throat, her face flushing as the fire spreads into her scalp and the pain tightens across her abdomen, circling her hips like a vise.
“Why are you here?” The question repeated, nearer to her now, the voice at her ear and the older woman close enough that she feels the air around her shifted out of place by her mere proximity.
“I-I… I can’t-” Still in her hips, causing her legs to tremble, her hand to reach out towards nothing in an effort to prevent herself from dropping to her knees.
“The child will be a girl.” Her words, warm on her cheek. “You know this. And you kept it from him. Yet you did everything you could to save the child, a child you knew might have been ripped from your arms had you stayed where you were when the pains began.”
Elizabete stands up again, each breath coming deeper now, the heat waning. “Where is Leon?”
Mrs. Galle places her hands before her, clasped, fingers flexing along with a small shrug of her shoulders. “If he is no longer in the house, then I cannot help you.”
“He would not leave me.”
“Search the rest of the rooms. Search the attic. Climb onto the roof and dig through the gutters. You will see, I do not try to hide your husband from you.”
“If I cannot find him, I will leave.”
“I will not stop you.” Mrs. Galle turns to leave the room. At the door, she looks back over her shoulder, a cold light in her eyes. “But I would not advise it.”
Every room searched, and then again without the presence of Mrs. Galle behind her, hovering like a shadow. He is nowhere, and so the panic rises, pressing in as an imitation of the dripping mist that surrounds the house.
Mrs. Galle told her not to leave. Not an order of any sort, but a suggestion. She will go out and she will find him. A footprint in the mud, something… something that will tell her whether or not he has left her. Has abandoned her.
The door is there, the one she came through with Leon only the day before. It feels like the day before, but time, she thinks, seems to have lost all its power in this place. A tug of her shawl around her shoulders, the edges draped over her abdomen, and she grasps the doorknob, turns and pulls.
She expects more. Something to startle her, to make the tension in her chest, the fear closing in like doors shutting on either side of her eyes worth the strength it takes from her. But there are the steps, the worn path clogged with tree roots and overgrown weeds, the trees beyond, and through that, the town, the world, the sky.
Her voice hovers in the silence, suspended by the mist and the lack of wind or breeze. Down the steps, one, two, three, and her shoes sink into the soft mud there. For a moment she stands, one hand in front and one on her lower back, wary and waiting for the next round of pains to begin. But they’ve held off for several hours now, all through the second search of the house and while her mind hooked onto the idea of venturing outside.
The mud beneath her feet. She looks down, hoping for a print, a smudge, a scrape, but there is nothing, only the marks left from when she and Leon arrived the day before. But nothing leaving the house, and so she briefly entertains the notion of returning inside again, of citing her defeat to Mrs. Galle the next time the woman should seek her out.
She wishes for some obvious thing to catch her attention. Not even the sound of a bird reaches her ears. The sudden rush of her exhalation is as fierce as a storm in the quiet. Around the house once, she tells herself. Only once. Her feet slip a little on the soft ground, and she walks with her head down, gaze scanning the dead, flattened plants, the shelves of mushrooms clinging to every fallen log.
The house is to her right as she traces an orbit around it. At the back the trees press in closer, so much that she cannot pass through without brushing against one or the other.
“Leon!” she calls out, standing with the house behind her. She pushes further into the woods, tracing a straight line from the building, only stepping slightly to the side when a tree or rock blocks her path. “Leon!”
A glance back, and the building is still there, a grey hulking thing, its shoulders bowed against the onslaught of years and nature closing in about it. Her breath held in her mouth, burning the back of her throat, and she doesn’t want to turn away, a flicker of fear that should she let it out of her sight, she will never find it again.
“Foolish,” she mutters. Shaking her head, she looks forward, begins her search again, turns and starts describing a wider circle around the house.
The branches clutch at her skirts the farther from the building she travels. Thorns catch her hem, tearing holes in the fabric as she struggles to pull it free. A glance up from the ground and she could almost believe the thin twigs and nettles to be arcing towards her, towards the house, an inverted basket shaping itself over everything. Another grab at her skirt and she sees a shadow out of the corner of her eye as she looks down again. Not a person, nothing as tangible as that. A trick of her sight, perhaps. A shifting of the mist. Anything, anything but something that should fill her with fear.
A touch on her arm then, soft as the brush of a leaf, and she turns without even a hitch in her breath to see him there, his hair dark and damp, soaked against his collar. His lips are parted, his throat moving as if he is trying to speak or swallow or both at once.
“What happened?” The hand on her sleeve, she notices, is coated in dirt. Grime beneath his fingernails, embedded in the lines of his skin, and she wonders if he spent the night on the bare ground, fingers scraping the earth in his sleep.
“You,” is all he says.
She rears back a step, chin tipping up as if pulling away from a blow. His eyes are bright, his brow pale beneath sodden tendrils of hair. There was something of accusation in that small word, or perhaps she was only imagining it. “Where have you been?” She closes the distance again, avoiding his eyes as she puts a hand to his forehead, his cheek, the side of his neck. “Dear God, you’re burning.” Her hand wraps around his wrist, the grit on his skin rolling beneath her grasp.
The walk back to the house feels twice as long as the journey away. Leon follows behind her, his pace sluggish, punctuated by stumbles over the rocks and other impediments. Like a dog on a lead, he trails along. At the front steps of the house, he halts, unwilling to go any further.
“You must come inside,” she cajoles him, standing on the first step, putting herself at eye level with him. “You’re not at all well.”
He does not speak, gives her no indication that he hears what she says. But she slips an arm around his waist, her fingers digging into the bottom of his ribcage as she urges him to come with her.
The door is still unlocked as she left it. A shove to open it, and then the clean, neat hall beyond, so at odds with the outer portion of the entrance. Is this how Mrs. Galle has remained safe all these years, a solitary woman keeping the world at bay by presenting a front of dereliction and abandonment?
Elizabete drags Leon onward, towards the room set aside for them. Towards the bed, left unmade from the night before, and she tips him onto it, his head and right arm lolling off the edge before she prods him onto the pillow.
“I need blankets,” she says as Mrs. Galle appears in the doorway. “Hot water and cloths. Oh, and a fire. I need a fire.”
“You found him?”
Elizabete looks up at the pointless question. “You see him here, do you not? Now hurry, he is not well.”
“You should have left him.”
“Nonsense.” She struggles to remove his shirt, tearing it in places and telling herself she will mend it later. “Now, will you help me?” she asks, her words sharp, laced with resentment at the old woman for standing there and doing nothing.
“You will not save him.”
Her hands pause, the shreds of his shirt at her feet, his skin hot to the touch, while his eyes gaze up at the ceiling, at nothing. “Hot water and clean cloths, please. I must wash him.”
“Very well,” Mrs. Galle says, resignation there. And turns and walks away.
A simple spell, in some ways. Blood from her palm, earth from the ground that held the roots of the town, water from both the stream and the river that flanked it. Only a small sacrifice, no one would even notice, surely.
The words slipped out on a whisper, stirring her hair, the strands of it caught in the moonlight. A word, a word, a word, one spoken for every bit of life taken, every bit of life received. Such a small sacrifice, she reminded herself. And all to save the life of her child, the one who had not stirred in her womb for days. The words, the words, the words that would halt the thin thread of blood and fluid that had begun to leak out of her.
Only a small sacrifice. A bit from each life around her, and all in exchange for another.
The fire burns low and stubborn, refusing to pick up a draft and light the damp wood from beneath. The hot water, darkened with filth after washing him, has been taken away and replaced with cool water, soaked up with a clean linen and placed across his brow.
The light from the lamp is dim, despite it being turned up to its full brightness. But even so, she can see the tracery of darkness beneath his skin, filling his veins and causing them to bulge outwards. He has stopped sweating, though she does not know if it is a good or bad thing. But the moisture that occasionally leaks from the corners of his eyes, tears that gather and slide down the side of his face and into his hair, take on an inkier hue as the afternoon marches towards night.
He is naked beneath the blankets, his clothes removed and discarded in a corner of the room, nearest to the door. She did not know where he spent the night, how or if he slept at all after he left her. And she cannot ask him, this blank-eyed figure who breathes only shallowly and gives no response to any sound or touch she extends towards him.
Some time in the middle of the night, his eyes flutter and close. She watches the beat of his pulse in the hollow of his throat, the slow rise and fall of his chest beneath the layers of covers draped and tucked over him.
She picks up the cloth, wrings it out into the basin, and soaks it in fresh water from the pitcher on the nightstand beside her. A small groan escapes her as she reaches over him to press the cloth over his forehead. The pains have begun again, not as harsh as before, but with a rhythmic steadiness that frightens her more than when they gripped her hips and lower back with such ferocity.
“Not tonight.” A whisper. A plea. For Leon to stay with her. For the child to wait until…
Mrs. Galle stands in the doorway. Elizabete has no time for her, no attention to spare. But the woman moves quietly into the room, her new stance near the end of the bed marked with a click of her tongue on the roof of her mouth.
“He is not coming back to you.”
Elizabete bites down on the inside of her cheek, drawing blood. “It is only a fever. He was out all night in the cold and the damp. He merely needs…” Her resolve dies along with her lack of words. He needs more than she can give. Or more than she is willing to give.
“You made your choice already, did you not? His life for the child’s. It was the bargain you struck.”
But Elizabete shakes her head, even as she flips the cloth on Leon’s brow, exchanging the warm side for the cool. “Not for this, no. It was only to be a little bit, not enough for it to matter.”
She comes around to the opposite side of the bed, reaches across and places her hand over Elizabete’s, stilling the franticness of her ministrations. “You chose this.”
“No.” She says nothing more as another bout of pain takes hold. When she looks up again, the ache has receded and a spark of clarity in her thoughts makes her pin the older woman with a sharp look. “What choice?” She wrenches her hand away, tucking it against her side and brushing it across her skirt, as if there is dirt to be removed. “What do you know of it?”
Mrs. Galle raises her gaze to the top of Elizabete’s head. “It shines from you like a diadem, your magic, the spells you weave. You may have forgotten where you come from, but the power did not leave you. So, yes. I know what you’ve done. What you took to save your child.”
“I took nothing.” She turns her attention back to Leon. “Only a small thing, a little bit from everyone. A breath, a heartbeat, a flutter of life. Only pieces, nothing that should have ever been noticed.”
A mistake, then. She had made a mistake somewhere, in word or practice, had drawn too much from those around her, had sealed their fate. Had turned them against her, given credence to the claims they made of her power.
Another pain, then. Brief and sharp, the lull between them growing shorter.
“Of course, there might be a way to undo what you’ve done. But… you know what you would be required to give up, in turn.”
Leon’s brow burns beneath the palm of her hand. She shuts her eyes, wishing for a moment that she could siphon the heat from him, the darkness, and give him back that small fragment she’d taken away. And without harming the life inside of her, the one already fought so hard to keep.
“It is waiting for him,” Mrs. Galle goes on, never ceasing, though Elizabete wants to hear none of it. “You’ve seen it, I know. The darkness wants him, will trip at your heels until it has him.”
“Just get out,” she says, her shoulders sagging, fingers sweeping downward to stroke the sharp line of Leon’s jaw. “Get out!” The last word descending into a moan as the muscles across her abdomen begin to tighten again.
Walking. Walking. Around the edges of the room, shoulder leaning against the wall when the pain becomes too much, when she cannot draw a breath, when she droops forward, hands braced on her knees, hips swaying from side to side as a low groan slides up and out from the back of her throat.
And in between she returns to Leon, hotter than the ashes that glow in the grate, his own breath so soft she must place her fingertips above his parted lips to feel the stir of air there.
And around the room again, pausing when the pains rise through her, her jaw aching from the constant grinding of her teeth against them. She works her way towards the bed, a break in the pain making her think it will be done for another minute, but it pushes up again without ceasing, worse than before, and she bends forward until her forehead presses into the mattress, legs shaking until her knees bend and she’s on the floor, twisting the blankets in her hands with enough force to shred them.
“Enough of this.”
And there is a hand on her shoulder, another on her arm, helping her up, guiding her away, away…
“No!” Elizabete grips the doorframe, fingernails digging deep into the wood, scraping at the paint.
“The baby is almost here,” Mrs. Galle hisses in her ear. “Do you want to birth the thing at the feet of a dying man?”
But she does not let go of the door frame, holding tight like a truculunt child.
“Have it your way, then.” And Mrs. Galle walks away, leaving her by the door as the next wave of pain floods over her. She returns in an instant, or perhaps hours later, arms laden with blankets and clean linens. A makeshift bed is put together near the fire. Sparks fly as Mrs. Galle builds up the flames, fresh wood snapping when she places another log over a bed of dry twigs and fragments.
Elizabete crawls forward, crying out as she is struck again, the pain and pressure reaching a peak until something breaks and a flood of hot moisture pours out from between her legs, soaking her skirts and the floor beneath her.
Mrs. Galle holds out her hands, helps her onto her back, all manner of cushions and pillows propped behind her. She hoists up the hem of her skirt, seemingly unconcerned by the constant groaning from Elizabete.
But she cannot seem to get on top of the pain, as before. The pressure is too much, an all-consuming thing, and she thinks she might drown in it. So she thrashes out, rocking from one side to another, until Mrs. Galle catches her leg, finger biting hard into her flesh.
“You will do this now. You’ve made your choice, remember. Unless…”
But, no. Elizabete does not want to hear this now, does not want to think that there might be another option. This is all she has struggled for, she has killed for, to give this child its first breath.
“You can still save him, I think. Even now, should you wish it.”
One more swift kick, knocking the older woman back onto her rear. “No!” A growl now, fueled by overwhelming pressure pushing with all the precision of a hammer between her legs. “I know what I’ve done, what I must do…”
Mrs. Galle sniffs sharply and shifts smoothly forward onto the balls of her feet.
“I will set the world on fire, if I must, to see this child born!”
Her words receive no reply. Mrs. Galle eases forward, helping Elizabete into position, knees pulled up, a brief instruction that the next time the pressure returns, the next time her breath slips away from her, to tuck her chin to her chest and push with all the strength left to her.
The fire has burned low again when it is finished. The relief, she realizes, is an astonishing thing. All of the pain and the misery, to be snuffed out as quick as pinching out a candle flame. Arms trembling, Elizabete raises herself up onto her elbows, high enough to see a child of a beautiful color, all red and pink and with her eyes squeezed shut and her tiny hands balled into fists. And then the small thing lifts up her own head from Mrs. Galle’s bloody hands and screams with a surfeit of joy and anger and fear, as if all of Elizabete’s feelings are finally given voice through her small, pink-lipped mouth.
“A girl,” she breathes, and laughs.
Mrs. Galle wipes the babe’s face and limbs, wraps it tight in a clean blanket, and places the child in Elizabete’s arms. “Put the girl to your breast. Let her find you.”
She holds the baby against her, her daughter. Brought back from the edge of death, given another chance. “My Bethia,” she whispers, as the child roots and begins to suck from her breast.
The soiled blankets and linens are cleared away, more hot water brought in. The fire is built up again, the drapes drawn open as the light of another morning pushes into the room.
“You cannot stay here.”
Elizabete looks up, the first she’s looked up from the child’s face since she was first placed in her arms. Will the woman throw her out of the house now? But, no. Nothing so cruel as that. The older woman’s gaze darts towards the bed, forcing Elizabete’s attention there as well.
“He is dead,” Mrs. Galle says. “Gone when that one drew its first breath. Along with any others who were left, I’m sure.”
Her arms wrap tighter around the baby, her eyes drifting back towards the whorls of fine hair on the infant’s head. “I am hungry,” she says.
Mrs. Galle nods. “I will make up another room for you, and then you will eat, hmm?”
When she is alone again, she loosens the baby’s blanket enough to see her legs and feet, her slender arms and long fingers tipped with sharp, translucent nails. A perfect creature, she thinks, before tucking her up again, returning the baby to her breast.
“May you live long,” she says, she breathes across the top of the child’s head. “May you grow with the knowledge of how loved you are, of the price paid to bring you to this moment.”
A flutter, a fuss, and the baby arches back her head and cries.