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The Witch's Brat by Peregrine Bones

© Peregrine Bones

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Prelude

It was a short, dark day - the shortest day of the year, Gammer explained to the little boy as she went about her chores. She stopped frequently as she worked, to tickle the small bright boy, or sing a song with him. Sometimes she would pause in her tasks long enough to sit by the fire and play a quick round of Cat in the Attic, Mouse in the Cellar, a game the boy had invented himself to pass the lonely hours. It was played with some intricately carved wooden figures which had been given to him as a special gift from a foreign land.

After lunch she took down the ancient Grimoire from its hiding place in a secret panel above her bed. She opened the book to a beautifully illustrated page, glittering with gilded drawings of the sun, the moon and the earth against a deep azure background. She explained all about the movements of the planets and the stars, about how the days grew short in winter and then grew longer and longer as the seasons changed, until, by high summer the sun barely disappeared below the horizon at all. As she talked, the glittering images of the heavenly bodies slowly moved across the page, rotating around each other with gentle majesty, while the little boy looked on with wide eyes.

Still, by late afternoon the boy grew bored. It was too cold to go out and play in the deep snow that buried their small clay cottage. Purple darkness was falling in the woods that surrounded them and the boy became fretful.

“Come with me,” Gammer coaxed as he restlessly circled the small cottage, filled with a pent up energy he could not release. “You can play in the loft while I milk the goats. Bundle up, though,” she added. “It is very cold out.”

The boy donned heavy knitted leggings, a woolen sweater, and a heavy coat made of an old blanket. He put on worn leather boots that were only a little bit too big. Skipping with joy, he followed Gammer out into the snowy yard, where the first stars were shining in the deep blue sky. It looked just like the illustration in the Grimoire, the boy thought, staring upwards. The cold froze the hairs inside his nose and made the snow crackle under his feet. He flung himself into the deep clean snow. His breath came out in white billowing clouds and his childish laughter echoed among the bare branches of the trees. Gammer stood and watched him play, smiling at him with deep love in her eyes. At last they grew too cold and she made him come with her into the barn which was warmed by the sweet breath of the goats.

The boy played in the haymow, climbing up onto a ledge and jumping into a huge stack of the soft, fragrant hay. He climbed and jumped over and over, until his cheeks were rosy and his eyes were bright. When he grew tired he settled himself in the pen with the baby goats, who licked his hands and butted at his head and tried to climb onto his back. The babies entertained him until Gammer was done with the milking and they headed across the dark yard to the cottage. She held a brimming milk bucket in each hand. The boy followed in her footsteps, taking giant steps so he could reach the prints her boots made in the freshly fallen snow. The moon had risen while they were inside. It rode in the clear cold sky, lighting their way, and the boy felt it calling to him, pulling at him, though he didn’t understand why.

Halfway across the yard the boy stopped and looked up at the wintry sky. There was a new light shining there, brighter than the brightest star. As bright as the moon. It made a slow arc across the heavens, lighting up the snow with a weird yellowish glow. A tail of sparks streamed behind it like a river of fire. It moved slowly across the sky and the boy felt a grabbing sensation in his chest, as if something was pulling deep at his insides. Gammer dropped the milk buckets with a clatter and clutched at her heart. The boy felt as if the earth were shifting beneath his feet. The world tilted weirdly, the bright yellow light undulating and swirling across his vision, growing brighter and brighter until the light nearly blinded him and he had to shut his eyes. He heard a loud rumble - deep and echoing, as if the very stuff of the world was being torn apart. The earth shook and he fell to the ground.

Then it was over. The bright light in the sky was gone. The boy could still see the burning light against his eyelids but when he opened them he saw only the familiar blue glow of the moon upon the snow. The world had stopped shaking and everything was still. Gammer picked him up and hugged him. She gathered up the empty milk buckets and they went back into the warm cottage. She fed him his supper and made him go to bed. But after he was tucked up in between the sheets she sat by the fire for a long time, leafing through the pages of the ancient Grimoire, as if searching for answers.


*********

In a high tower far far away another little boy sat in the shadows and watched as a bright comet streamed across the sky. He felt the earth rumble and shake. A man with dragon wings held a newborn baby aloft. Their forms were silhouetted darkly against the bright light, growing ever brighter in the sky. The baby’s cry filled the cold night air and mixed with the sound of the man’s triumphant laughter.

********

Chapter 1 Ashes

The sailor was looking for her. He had been looking for her for over two months. His ship was in dry dock, and he still had over a fortnight left before it sailed.

He was far, far, from his native land where the sun shone every day and the green of the mountains rising up from the sea was rich and deep. He was far from the island he was born on, where the waves tumbling onto the white sand beaches had lulled him to sleep every night of his childhood, and where sometimes, he had heard the mermaids singing. Here he walked through a land of pale green hills, dotted with sheep, a land rolling endlessly toward a sky that was so pale it was almost white. There were small stretches of forest where the leaves had turned russet and which smelled, to this man of the sea, of decay.

Over the past few days the weather had turned nasty. A chill wind blew down from the north. Rain had been falling in fits and starts. He did not care for this country, but he reckoned it was where she would go. It was her home. Her magic was tied to the clay beneath his feet. He trudged steadily through the rain. Every hour or so he would cast a finding spell, as was his habit. As had been usual ot late, he had no luck.

As evening fell he came upon a small village. It was a collection of humble clay houses around a church. There were a few tiny shops, a large hollow barn where, on market days, sheep were traded and bales of wool were bid on. There was a pub which let beds to wayfarers in its drafty attic. The Ram’s Horn it was called. A curling horn, yellowed with age, hung from two rusty chains above the door, creaking in the chilly wind. The sailor opened the wooden door cautiously and was met by a rush of warm air which smelled of stale beer and unwashed men.

“Close the door man!” called a harsh, but not unfriendly voice. “You be lettin’ all the warmth out! What ails ye?”

The sailor quickly shut the door and looked about him. The pub was a bit grimy, but cleaner than many in these parts. There was a cheerful fire crackling in the hearth and the bar appeared well stocked. At this early hour the man at the bar was the sole patron, and he was clearly already well into his cups. The sailor was pleased. The village drunkard was often the best source of information in any town. The man at the bar gestured him over and the sailor crossed the straw strewn floor to shake his hand.

He had used many names in his long and complicated life, but over the past ten years Tobias Goodkind had served him well. He must use a false name here though. He introduced himself as Jack and offered to buy the man an ale. Two hours later, as the pub was filling up he had the information he had been seeking. There was a new simple, who lived at the edge of the town. She kept to herself, but was good with potions, lotions, love charms and wards. Only the age seemed wrong. The drunkard kept referring to this woman as a hag, and an old girl, but it was the first real lead he’d had. He bought a bowl of stew for himself and one for his new friend. He paid for a bed in the drafty attic for the night. He felt a stirring of hope for the first time in months. Perhaps tomorrow he would find her.

********

When he woke the next morning the room was icy cold and he would have been frozen were he not wrapped up in his wolverine fur cloak. The only water was a half frozen trickle coming from a rusty tap outdoors. He washed as best he could, doussing his head in the icy water to discourage lice, and said a short charm for good measure. He paid a copper penny for a bowl of porridge and a cup of weak tea and was on the road, walking up into the hills where the old drunk had instructed him to go, before the sun was well up in the sky.

He spent the morning roaming the empty hills above the town but it was useless. Clearly she had chosen to conceal herself from him. This knowledge made his heart ache, but he could do nothing about it. He did not understand when or how he had lost her trust, but there it was. Occasionally he thought he caught a scent of her, the rosemary wash she used to rinse her hair, or a whiff of human shit. He saw an occasional glimmer between the trees. It was cold but the sun was shining. The sky was a deep azure. The air was dry, all the moisture in it frozen and sucked into tiny wisps of cumulus clouds, millions of tiny ice crystals, swirling high above. At sea the air was never this clear. Even on the sunniest day it was softened by the salt spray that continually put moisture into the air. Tobias was far from his element. His magic was weaker here among the grasses and the heather and the sheep, for he was a sea mage.

He did not really want to do what he knew he must. He sat on his haunches and whispered a spell, soft and coaxing. After a few minutes a rabbit came out of the low scrub, wide eyed and trembling. It approached his outstretched fingers in short, cautious hops, its whiskers vibrating furiously. It sniffed at him. He stroked the soft fur between its ears. Then, in one swift motion, he grabbed it by both ears and wrung its neck in his large calloused hands. It emitted a brief, high pitched scream of death and went limp and silent.

He removed a steel knife from his belt. It was carbon steel, with a fine black patina, the edge well honed. The handle was of narwhal horn, carved with runes of power. It was his livelihood and his primary weapon of defense. He’d had it since he was a boy. It had been bestowed upon him by his tearful parents when he had sailed away from them on his first voyage. He’d only been fourteen. That ship had been a whaler, and he had nearly frozen to death that first winter on the Northern Sea.

Now he used the knife to slit the rabbit’s throat. He hung it and bled it into a small flask which he produced from deep in his cloak. The blood steamed in the frigid air. Its hot salty tang reminded him of the sea. He took a long swallow of the hot delicious blood, then sealed the flask with a spell and returned it carefully to his cloak. He would need it soon.

He uttered a spell of gratitude, to the rabbit, for helping him, for giving its life, and a binding spell, to bind the rabbit’s spirit to his own. He would need all the quiet strength of the rabbit to draw her to him. He gutted the rabbit and buried the entrails. He tied the rabbit to a stick, wiped his knife in the grass, and returned it to his belt. He walked along the scrub at the edge of the field until he found a trail that led up into the hills. With the rabbit’s blood, he drew a finding rune on a white rock at the entrance to the trail, then uttered a spell to hide it from all eyes but hers.

He ascended into the hills, the dead rabbit dangling over his shoulder, the leaves rustling beneath his feet and releasing their spicy, musty scent. The trees about him were clothed in yellow and orange. At every fork in the trail he chose the one that ascended higher, marking his choice with the finding rune in the rabbit’s blood, and repeating the incantation. As he ascended, the clouds rolled in and the sky darkened. By eventide there was a steady drizzle falling among the leaves.

He made camp in a small clearing that looked out over the valley below. He took the last of the rabbit’s blood and sprinkled it in a circle around his campsite. All the wood around him was soaked. He was not skilled at fire magic, but he gathered wood and drove the water from it with a spell. He got a fire going with flint and steel. He cooked the rabbit and made sure to eat it all, the liver, the heart, the brains, chewing the bones to get at the marrow. With this act the drawing spell was sealed. Now all he had to do was wait. He hoped with all his heart that this would work. If it failed, he had no idea what he would do next.

He made a lean-to shelter out of a sealskin tarp, tying it to the trees above and pegging it to the ground with stakes he carved with his knife. He wrapped himself in the wolverine cloak. He heard the hoot of an owl echoing through the treetops, and a second owl returned the call. A few moments later he heard the scream of a rabbit, brief and sharp, clearly the owls’ dinner. He shuddered. He did not like these woods. He felt claustrophobic here, closed in, far from his source of power. He feared the howl of the wolves that ran in these woods and fields, but tonight he did not hear them. He pulled his cloak tighter around him. The fire was still burning as he fell asleep.

********

When he opened his eyes the grey light of morning was filtering through the yellow leaves and she was sitting by the cold fire, looking at him silently, her dark eyes upon him. He understood now why the village drunk referred to her as a hag. He had not seen her in many months, but she had aged by ten years at least. Her youthful beauty had vanished. Her hair was a grey cloud curling about her face which was lined with care, her posture was stooped, her clothing was tattered black rags. Only her eyes were still youthful, the whites clear, the irises dark brown, burning in her face as she looked at him with deep hunger.

“Tobias,” she breathed.

“Hello Calliope.”

He lifted the edge of the cloak. She crawled in next to him and then she was in his arms and they were laughing and crying and pulling off her rain soaked rags. They made love with a fierceness that encompassed both the joy of their reunion and the sorrow of all they had endured.

Then they lay together, skin to skin, the heat from their spent bodies trapped in the wolverine fur around them. The rain was dripping from the edges of their sealskin shelter. The warmth was tropical, soporific. It felt so good just to hold each other, and they did, for a long, long time, but at last the silence between them grew too deep. Sadly, he knew it must be broken.

“You hid from me,” he said, and then regretted it. He did not mean it to sound as it did, an accusation.

She was looking off into the distance, her eyes unfocussed. “I was afraid,” she said at last.

“You have been through a terrible time,” he said.

“They killed our baby,” she said hollowly, looking out into the trees. Her sorrow was beyond tears.

“I know,” he said. “I have his ashes.”

She looked at him sharply then, her sorrow replaced by fear. “You shouldn’t have,” she said. “They will know you are connected to me. They will follow you.”

He shrugged. “I paid well for the undertaker’s silence. And I did my best to hide my trail.”

“I’ll die before I go back into their hands,” she said fiercely.

“I thought we deserved a chance to bury our son.”

“He was beautiful, Tobias.”

“I never met him.”

“He looked like you. His skin was so soft, and nut brown. His eyes were dark, almost black, like basalt. That’s what I called him, Basalt. He was a happy baby, laughed and smiled at an early age, way before the midwives said he should. And he had fire magic. He’d touch his fingers together and the sparks would fly, and he’d laugh his little baby laugh. He was my heart, Tobias.”

“We’ll have another baby,” Tobias said, tears filling his eyes.

“I don’t think I can, anymore,” she said. “My courses have stopped and have not returned. Look at me,” she said, gesturing towards herself. “I am old.”

“You are beautiful, “ he said, through his tears.

“He cried that whole night,” she said, her eyes off in the trees again. The rain fell steadily among the leaves. “Screamed and screamed. In the morning, they brought me his little broken body.”

“They are monsters,” he said. “Who would torture a little baby?”

“They had a point to prove. I had betrayed them. They have no pity.”

“They wanted to make you fear them.”

“And they have succeeded.”

“Come away with me,” he said, ‘“To the sea. I will take you home with me, to the island I grew up on. There they will respect and cherish you as a powerful enchantress. We can leave all this sorrow and fear behind.”

She looked at him with determination. “You know I cannot, Tobias. My power is here, in the clay. And it is not over yet. I will work against them. And when the final battle is called, I will join in.”

“I will stay and help you,” he said stoutly.

“It is not your land, it is not your battle. Your power is in the sea.”

“I love you, Calliope,” he said.

“And I you, Tobias. How long until your ship sails?”

“Another fortnight.”

“I shall be glad to have you with me until then,” she said. “And I will wait for you to return to me after that, as you always have.” She stirred from him and started to gather her wet rags and put them on. With a spell he drove the water from them and she smiled at him gratefully.

“Come,” she said, when she was dressed. “Let us bury our son.”

The small wooden box that contained the baby’s ashes was pitifully light. Tobias hefted it in his hand and wondered how it could contain the remains of the son he has never known. Calliope was dry eyed as she moved the earth to make a small grave, using a fallen branch to channel her power. They placed the tiny box in the earth, and covered it with the damp soil using their hands. Calliope traced a rune of protection and remembrance over the spot using the fallen branch, and Tobias chanted the prayer for the dead that he remembered from his island home.

And then they clung to each other and their tears fell, mingling with the steady drip of the rain, a balm soothing a wound that could never be healed.

********


Chapter 2
A Baby in a Basket

The fortnight they had together fled all too quickly, and Calliope watched Tobias walk down the road and away from her one early morning when the frost was hard like iron on the dead grass and the orange pumpkins in the fields. She stood and watched him until he disappeared around a curve in the road. She turned into her tiny, one room cottage and settled herself in for a long and lonely winter.

In later years, when she looked back, Calliope could never quite remember how she got through that first winter. Her loneliness and fear surrounded her like a dense, cold mist. There was never really enough food, or enough wood. The winters were fierce in her northern home country, and the wind blew down from the high crags of the mountains, piercing, laced with icy snow crystals that stung like needles. The people of the village came to her for her potions, her charms, her advice, and her listening ear, making their way over the snowy trail up to her cottage. They paid her as they could; a sack of nuts, a bottle of milk, a basket of eggs, a bundle of firewood. Tobias had left her with dried strips of seal meat and blubber, she had some onions and potatoes she had managed to harvest from her first year’s garden in the rocky soil. She took her small light bow and went hunting in the woods. She occasionally brought down a hare or a ptarmigan. If she was careful, she would not starve.

She thought maybe her heart would starve, though. The ache from the death of her innocent little babe never left her. She missed Tobias so much she thought the loneliness would overtake her. It was only the promise of his return in the spring, that gave her the strength to get out of bed in the cold, dark mornings, start the small fire, make tea, sweep the floor. There was not much to do in the long cold days. One of the village women had brought her some soft fine wool in exchange for a love charm. At first Calliope had been disappointed by the payment in a form that she could not eat. But, stirred by boredom, she carved some knitting needles out of a couple of firm branches of ash, and sat by the small fire in the afternoons and knitted. She knitted a set of baby clothes, thinking maybe she could sell it; woolly gowns and jackets, booties, a hat. She made it a size to fit her baby who was gone from her. It was morbid, she knew, but she couldn’t stop herself.

At night the howling of the wolves echoed up from the river bottoms in the valley, where they ran and chased. It was too dark to knit, and Calliope got into bed early to save firewood, bundled in her wool cloak, shivering until the bed warmed, and listened to them howl.

The dark nadir of the year came and went, the solstice, with the usual singing and candlelight in the village, and Calliope went and sat in the church with her neighbors, though none would sit near her, as she was a witch. They would come to her for her cures and charms, share their deepest troubles with her, but none wanted to be seen with her in public, especially not under the eye of the elderly priest who stood at the altar and intoned the old prayers in a rusty voice that warbled on and on. He stared beadily at the assembled villagers as if he could look into their souls and see the sins hidden within.

Then one freezing early morning in January, just after the sun was up, she heard a short rap on her door. She opened it and found a baby in a basket, wrapped in a wolfskin to keep the cold off him. A note pinned to his little homespun gown named him as Julian Thaddeus Laflam. She picked him up and he howled furiously. She lifted his gown and saw the bite of the wolf on his leg. She knew what that meant. The werewolves were scattered all about this country, and it wasn’t unusual for them to bite a child. Often these children were sacrificed, but occasionally the village simple would take them in, raise them as a familiar and assistant.

Calliope took the child into the warm cottage, cleaned him up, and dressed him in the woolen garments she had made. Her breasts ached to feed him but she had no milk, and when she tried to nurse him he became frustrated and screamed and pounded his little fists. She made him a pottage of milk and oats and nuts, put through a fine sieve. He ate it hungrily off a small spoon, then fell asleep contentedly in her arms. She sat by the fire and stared at him. The firelight played over his sweet baby face, his snub nose, his soft brown curls. He looked to be about six months old.

So when Tobias returned in the spring, he found Calliope with a babe playing at her feet, and an air of contentment he had never thought to find in her again. The child was not his son. It looked nothing like him, with its soft brown curls, pink skin, blue eyes. He was a happy baby. He gurgled and cooed and clapped his hands together when something pleased him. He had no magic that Tobias could see. Calliope called him Tad, and loved him as a mother. Tobias did not know what to think. He had hoped to return to find her pregnant, but sadly, she told him, it was not to be. Her courses had not returned, she doubted they ever would. This werewolf baby was the only son they could ever hope to have.

It was a short visit, and Calliope could sense Tobias’ discontent, though they did not speak of it. She stood in the doorway with Tad in her arms and watched as once again, he walked down the road and away from her. She wondered if he would ever return. She kissed the top of Tad’s soft brown head. She had chosen her path.

Food was scarce in the village as everyone waited hungrily for the first green shoots in the gardens to turn into lettuce and peas and sweet green onions. Calliope was all right. Tobias had left her with more seal meat, and she had hoarded her meager supply of food so carefully that now she had enough to bring a pot of soup to an ailing village elder or a mother with a new baby. She moved about the village streets with Tad on her back, and wherever she went she was welcomed, as long as the priest and his deacons were not watching.

All through the summer she tended her garden, and cared for the baby, taking joy as he grew strong and healthy in the clean summer sunshine. She traded her charms for milk and eggs and watched his baby belly grow soft and round, his limbs dimpled and fat. By the time the days started to shorten and turn chilly he was pulling himself up on the simple furnishings in the cottage and taking his first toddling steps. She taught him to call her Gammer, and watched anxiously for Tobias’ return.

When he failed to appear she was not really surprised, but the disappointment she felt was bitter nonetheless. There was nothing she could do, though. She gathered nuts and wood in the chilly forest, dried mushrooms and apples by the fire, filled the attic with pumpkins and onions from her garden. They would be all right.

Through the long dark winter days she knitted a wool jacket and leggings for the growing boy. She knitted a ball, stuffed with rags, for him to throw, a family of toy mice for him to play with. He was bored and restless, pale from lack of sun. He coughed a dry cough that she could not cure, though she tried many potions and spells. At night the little cottage seemed to echo with the harsh sound of his hacking. She knew the only cure was sunshine, and fresh food, but that was still months away.

There were no other children about. The mothers in the village came to Calliope regularly to treat a wart or a fever, a sick cow or a broken heart, but they kept their little ones away from Tad, the witch’s familiar. It went without saying that he was tainted in some way. Most people guessed that he had been bitten by a werewolf. In these parts, it was the most likely thing.

The dark winter solstice came and went, with singing in the church. In early February came Candlemas, followed by the Feast of the Bear, with a bonfire in the village, and a wild circle dance, the boys wearing bear masks, chasing after the girls, who twirled their skirts and shrieked in a most appealing way. There was no flour for pancakes, but Calliope made some potato cakes for herself and Tad, and they shared a bottle of elderberry wine she had been given in trade. They had a little celebration around their hearth, Calliope telling Tad tales from long ago. She dramatized the stories with shadow puppets that she made with her hands in the flickering firelight. The wolf, the rabbit, the snake, the avenging raven. Tad’s baby eyes were wide with fascination.

At last the days started to lengthen towards spring. The rains came and melted the deep snow around the cottage making the woods muddy and wet. Everything was brown. It was the hungry time, and Calliope’s food stores were low. Tad seemed even more pale and sickly, and she started to wonder if he was going to survive. At night, his cough seems worse than ever, echoing through the small cottage.

In the wet days she bundled him in his wool jacket and leggings, and the old wolfskin that he had been wrapped in as an infant. She traipsed through the woods with Tad on her back, looking for food. It was too early for the first greens of spring, but she found a few mushrooms, the hard woody turkey tails, that grew like shelves along dead birch trees. She stewed these in the birch sap that she collected from the trees in her yard, and it made a kind of stew that wasn’t too bad. She coaxed frogs from the mud by the pond, and she and Tad ate the legs, roasted over the fire. They would be better with a little salt, but her meagre supply was long gone.

One April evening she returned to her cottage after a hard day of foraging. Tad was heavy on her back, and restless. She had a sack with some puffballs she had found. She was counting on these as a treat, their flesh soft, white and savory. Again she wished for salt, but they would still be good.

As she approached the cottage she lifted her nose to the smell of smoke. She never left a fire burning, she hadn’t the wood. Yet there was a light in the small cottage, a curl of smoke rising from the chimney. A white blur outside the door turned out to be a goat, tethered to the doorframe, chewing on a mouthful of dried grass. The door opened, casting a pool of warm light on the wet ground and Tobias was standing in the doorway, his eyes dark and pleading, his hands open in supplication.

She ran to him then, and flung her arms around him, Tad wide eyed and silent, bouncing on her back. Tobias’ arms were strong about her. His skin smelled of salt and tar. His kisses fell on her lips with unbearable sweetness. Tad let out a howl of fear, at these strange events. Calliope got him down off her back and cuddled him. She tried to make him understand that Tobias was a friend, but Tad wasn’t used to friends. They had no friends. He went and hid behind the wood box, peeking out tentatively, his blue eyes dark with apprehension.

Tobias had signed on to a whaler and been at sea for almost a year, which was why he had not returned in the fall. He had spent a terrible winter on the northern seas. He had hoped for riches, enough to set her up in a life without want, but it had been a bad berth, and he had little to show for it. He told Calliope he’d not do that again.

What he did bring with him seemed like riches to Calliope, in her half starved state. Seal blubber, dried fish and figs, oranges from sunny distant shores, wrapped in crinkly paper to preserve their freshness, small packets of oats and beans and salt. The goat was due to freshen any day, and soon there would be milk to drink. He had a hare he’d shot, earlier that day, and they stewed it with the puffballs and had a feast. Calliope thickened the gravy with the oats and seasoned it generously with the salt. Tad was coaxed out from his hiding place by the tantalizing smell of the food. When he had his first taste of an orange he laughed out loud and it was as if the sun had burst forth in the small dark cottage.

Tad sat on Calliope’s knee while Tobias got out a small tin guitar, which he lovingly tuned. He sang songs of the sea and the woods and the mountains, songs of love and loss and yearning. Tad watched, his small face intent with fascination, until he grew sleepy. His head rested against Calliope’s shoulder and he was asleep. His slender limbs were heavy, his belly full. She tucked him up in his small bed in the corner, then put some more wood on the fire and sat beside Tobias. She yearned to take him to bed, but she knew there were some things they needed to sort through first.

“I’m sorry,” said Tobias, into the flames.

She wanted to make everything all right between them, to tell him it was fine, but was it? They had nearly starved to death this winter, Tad and she. She reminded herself, stoically, that she had made her own choices. Tobias had not wanted her to return here, nor had he wanted a werewolf son. The fire crackled and the silence deepened between them.

“The resistance to the Brotherhood is growing stronger,” he said, into the flames. “In the city people are meeting in cells. Weapons are being gathered, supplies laid by. The Ice King supports our cause. I spoke with him when I was in the Northern Sea. He is willing to shelter our refugees, and supply us with weapons.”

Calliope stared into the flames and her heart stirred. She was not a vengeful person, but it was the deepest wish of her heart to see her tormentors overthrown, and justice returned to her land.

“That was why you went there,” she said quietly, into the flames.

“In part, yes,” he said.

“The Brotherhood is a formidable foe,” Calliope said. A branch in the fire popped and exploded in a small shower of sparks. “They will stop at nothing to achieve their ends.”

“I know,” said Tobias. He took her hand and held it in his large warm one, and they both remembered their innocent baby who had been killed so heartlessly. “But life in the cities is becoming unbearable. Food is scarce, and the cost of necessities keeps going up. The Brotherhood soldiers are everywhere, they plunder and bully the people and no one dares to stop them. The jails are full to bursting - they are building a new prison just outside the walls of Isinglass. It’s huge, Calliope, made of black granite and steel. People are afraid to say a word against the Brotherhood, for fear they may end up there. The uneasiness on the streets is palpable - you can feel it as you walk about.”

“Here too,” said Calliope. “The priest and his deacons are always watching. People are scared to talk to me in the street, for fear that one of them may be listening.”

“The church is controlled by the Brotherhood now,” said Tobias. “In Isinglass there are broadsheets posted in the market squares. All magic is to be performed only through church approved sources. Priests, deacons and Academy trained mages. All other magicks are banned.”

“They are taking away our power,” Calliope said darkly, staring into the flames. “But the people will never give up their magick. Not in these parts.”

“The Brotherhood is afraid to make a move here,” Tobias agreed. “They know they would be met with fierce opposition. But in Isinglass, ordinary people are afraid to perform even the simplest of spells.”

Calliope shut her eyes and tried to imagine it. Isinglass was the city of her youth. She had left these clay hills and gone to study at the Isinglass Academy of Magicks when she had been a young girl. The great, glittering city had fairly burst with magic in those days, sparkled with it. There had been young magicians demonstrating their powers on every corner, small stands selling amulets and wishing stones on every block. But now all that was forbidden by the Brotherhood.

They sat and stared at the flames, still holding hands, for a long time. At last Calliope rose, and returned with two small tumblers of her own currant wine. She handed one to Tobias. He raised his glass, filled with the dark red liquid, and drank. Calliope settled in the chair beside him. She drank her wine in silence.

“We nearly starved to death this winter, Tad and I,” she said at last. “Tad is ill. I’m not sure he will recover.”

“You thought I had abandoned you.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Yes.”

“I……I needed to think, Calliope. Can you understand that?”

“Yes, I can,” she said. “But it was terribly hard. I don’t want to feel that way again.”

Calliope looked over at Tobias. He was beautiful, in the firelight, with his nut brown skin, the laugh lines around his eyes, his dark wiry hair peppered with grey, his body, lean and muscular with a life of hard work. He was not the only love of her life. Her past had been marked by an earlier, darker passion, which had ended in complete disaster. But he was the last love she would ever have, of that, she was certain.

At last she spoke up. “I will be all right here, Tobias, if you never come back. I will be sad, heartbroken, in fact, but I will recover. I have Tad, and a living here among my people. I have my cause. And I will fight for it until I die. I will raise my child and I will survive.”

“But I came back,” he said. “I am here.”

“I need to know,” she said. “I need to know now. When you leave in two weeks, will you come back in the fall? Because my heart is fragile, Tobias. It is fragile as glass. I cannot allow you to break it over and over. I am not that strong.”

“I did not want the child,” he said. “He frightened me, with his curse. In my country, the were-men do not live among us. They are hated and feared above all others.” Calliope turned her head away from him, and he saw a tear upon her cheek.

“But hear me out,” he said. “I know you love the child. I know he brings you joy and comfort, and has helped you mend your broken heart. And I love you, Calliope. You are my heart. You are the soul of my soul and I want only happiness for you. You deserve it, magic knows. And so, I will love the child you love as well.”

“You will?” she asked, looking up at him. Her eyes were bright.

“I will, Calliope. I have already decided. For you, I will love the boy. And I promise to return here to you, every fall and spring, as long as I am able.”

And then Calliope was in his arms, and they did not talk any more that night.

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