Season 4, Episode 11
Written by Tof Eklund
Read by Tawn Krakowski
In The Book of Still Water it is written: “What is the body? It is the confluence of rivers. What is the soul? It is the water rising from a mighty spring. The riverbed is not the river, and a dry spring is mere broken earth.”
Those lines echoed in my mind as I attempted to sort out the forces acting upon and within me. First and clearest was my baby, like a cascade of clear water or a ray of light, moving toward birth but thwarted, frustrated, in danger of breaking up. Just as overwhelming and present was the throttled unproductive activity of my body, laboring in vain. My pulse was like pounding rain, too hard and fast, and my breathing a roaring gale.
Then there was the wyrding, tight around me like iron shackles, constricting like a noose around my neck, waiting to take me under. Cruel fate also plunged icy fingers into my belly, grasping at my unborn child. In counterpoint to this crushing weight was the flow of magic though my body, connected to the arcane marks on my skin. There was destiny there as well, but the twist of the wyrding that had marked me in that way was mine, it had become part of me in the same way that reeds growing in shallow water are part of the water that nourishes and fills them. I could command this magic.
“It serves you, but it serves me better,” the avenger had said as it seared me. Now, as I worked with the sigil-born magic within me, I thought I knew what that terrible voice had meant. The Power alone could not change the course of destiny, but there was a little of the wyrding itself woven into the magic of the sigils, enough to bend fate a little. I teased tendrils of the Power free from the large glyph on my belly and drew them into my womb, willing it to relax, to momentarily forget birth.
I felt the pressure ease a little and knew I had a few minutes to shift the baby before my body remembered what it was supposed to be doing and the contractions resumed. Something like a whiff of smoke passed under my nose, but I ignored it and got to work.
The adjustments I had to make were many, a tedious process of tiny pressures and subtle persuasions. I had to undo much of the work of my labor so far, and then replace the baby in the correct place for my state of progress. It would have been easier if I could have enlisted my child to help, but the ritual began to unravel when I tried to pass it though the prenatal caul.
After what seemed like hours, she was in the best position I could manage. I felt my womb heave back into action and, exhausted in ways I had never imagined, I took one last look at my baby from the inside. It was only then that I noticed it: fine threads of wyrding formed a net like a second amniotic sack around her. Those threads led out to the bindings of fate that surrounded me, and as I broadened my perception and began to rise out of the trance, I was able to perceive the wyrding around me for the first time since I had lost the Sight.
The twist of fate that connected me to my baby also linked us to Kaye, and there, between Kaye and I, hung an aberration of fate. Brighter than the sun, bluish-white in color, and twisted into a shuddering, pulsating knot was the doom I had prophesied. This was the thing that had blinded the third eye of every Sister in the Order. This was the wryd that promised the birth of my daughter, and death to one of her parents.
Births and deaths are everyday occurrences, requiring no special destiny. Why us, I wondered, why does fate care so much about us? Then I rose to full presence in the moment and could not see the wyrding anymore. More than that, I was in the middle of a contraction.
“Guuuh…aaggggh!” I screamed.
I let my body guide me and I pushed. Pushing felt different now, difficult but right, productive. Afterwards, I took a deep breath, and shuddered. The air in the little farmhouse stunk of aromatic wood and amber incense. No, not here, not now, I thought.
“Did it work?” Kaye asked. “Are you going to be able to deliver the baby?”
“Yes,” I gasped.
“Thank the Goddess,” he said. “That was terrifying. First there was a flash of light and then you went slack. The mark on your belly was glowing so bright—”
“Kaye,” I said, cutting him off, “do you smell that?”
“Smell what?” he said. “Oh, and your water still hasn’t broken.”
“That doesn’t matter. Take a deep breath and tell me if you smell incense.”
Kaye sniffed the air, then paused. “That’s odd,” he said. “I didn’t add anything to the fire.”
“Scourging day incense,” I said, then the next wave of contractions hit. As I worked thought the exhaustion, the odor grew stronger, and became tainted with putrescence. I gagged.
“Yelen,” Kaye asked, “what is going on?”
“It’s the avenger,” I said.
“What? What avenger?” he replied.
“Surely you remember this stench, from the night we fled here,” I said.
“Rotting meat and spoiled milk,” Kaye said, his voice suddenly distant. “It seems like a dream.”
“That dream gave me these scars,” I said, touching the scar tissue that made my sigils visible to the naked eye.
Kaye shook his head to clear it. “So that thing is coming here? Can it do that?”
“Apparently,” I said, and then fell silent for the next round of contractions. I pushed hard, wanting to complete this birth before this great doom arrived.
“Let me look,” Kaye said.
I hoisted myself up onto the bed and spread my legs to give him a good look.
“The baby’s crowning,” Kaye said, but the air was now heavy with the sick stink of burning offal, completely overwhelming the woodsmoke and amber.
Another round of contractions came and went as I squatted, letting the pull of the earth help me as much as possible. I did what I could to keep my breathing regular, but the air was increasingly foul, causing me to cough and choke.
“Kaye,” I gasped, “open the door!”
Kaye lowered himself out of the chair and began crawling to the door, pulling himself along hand over hand. He was only halfway there when an uncanny wind blew through the farmhouse, passing directly through the walls. It brought with it the sour stink of rancid milk, as well as deep darkness and a shock of dry heat. Burning ash blew around me, flecking the darkness with smoldering fury but illuminating nothing. I grabbed a sheet with one hand to reassure myself that I had not vanished, that we were still in the Niall farmhouse, and not some ancient charnel pit.
“Don’t worry, Kaye!” I called. “I have an idea how to deal with it.”
If Kaye said anything, I never heard it. Instead, a voice like a bone being ground to powder rose around me. “Oh, you know, do you, you little witch, you little strumpet?” The voice broke into a humorless laugh.
“I know you,” I said. “I know what you are.”
“Do you, harlot?” the voice spat out the last word with a dry snap, like a breaking limb.
“Yes.” I took a deep breath. “You are the shade of the High King, dead these past two centuries, and still howling for the bloodshed you can no longer produce. You are a pitiful ghost, a pathetic thing lacking life and also lacking the composure to rest. You are nothing.”
“You know nothing!” the voice blasted back. “I am the will of the wyrd, it’s vengeance, the bloody hand of fate. In life I was a man. Now you face a god.”
“You are no god,” I said. “You are just the shadow of a failure. Leave me be.”
“Termite! You seek to compel me? You do not even know my true name.”
“You were the High King, you were…” I paused. What was the given name of the High King?
In that moment, I realized that I did not know the High King’s name, that I had never known it, and more, that I had never, in all my life, thought to ask what it was. That wasn’t ignorance on my part, that was magic. What kind of magic did it take to make the whole world forget a name?
“Ha…ha ha…” the High King laughed, but the laughter sounded like a groan, “do you understand now? I have no name. It was consumed, burnt out of history, and my every weakness with it.”
Flickering red flames rose around me. They crackled and spat, popping like fingers being dislocated.
“You will die,” the voice of the High King intoned, “and all the whorish Sisters of your perverse Order will die, and at the last the great harlot you call Goddess shall yield to me, and she shall be consumed in my fire until the only thing that remains of her is the capacity to suffer, and that shall burn unto eternity.”
For a moment, I quailed. Then I felt the contractions start again, and I knew how to trump all that power and that destruction. I pushed.
“You are so frail,” the High King said. “You cannot even flee. You must wait for your doom.”
“Imbecile,” I said. “Unnngggh! This isn’t weakness, it is strength.”
That humorless laughter echoed again, and something like a gust of air or a flickering of shadow reached for me. It stopped short, and revealed an unbearably bright light, the same bluish-white knot of destiny I had beheld while rising from my trance.
I heard Kaye cry out in pain and cover his eyes.
“Do you know what this is?” the High King asked, his voice a little rounder with bitter glee in the moment of his triumph.
“Yes,” I said, then grunted, “put it down.”
“It is your death, written in the moment you gave in to your whorish nature and took the boy into your filthy body.”
“No!” Kaye screamed “You can’t have her! Take me!”
The High King ignored him. I felt his attention on my body as a leering examination, a hot gust of putrescent breath. The heat continued to rise, and I felt his flames lap at me in obscene pantomime of a lover’s caresses. The magical glyphs on my skin sprang to life again, but their light was faint.
“You cannot resist me,” the High King said.
“You look, but you do not see,” I replied as that round of contractions ended. “You seek to harm a witch as she is giving birth. There is nothing more sacred to the Goddess than birth. She is with me now. You broke yourself upon her quiet strength once, and she taught you the meaning of fear. If you want to be broken again, try me now. If not, hush and let me deliver this baby.”
I had spoken with every ounce of conviction I could muster, but with only the slenderest hope. For a moment, all was silent and I felt the terrible weight of the High King’s baleful attention. Then, without a word, the High King vanished. Ash, fire, and darkness were gone and all that remained was a faint odor of incense.
From there, my labor progressed quickly. Kaye called out words of encouragement as our baby’s head emerged, then one shoulder, then the other, and then the rest all in a rush.
“She’s still in the caul,” he said. “It never broke.”
“Time to break it,” I replied. “Wait, she?”
“Yes, Yelen. We have a daughter.”
As swiftly as the darkness had lifted, it descended again.
“The accursed child is born,” roared the High King, half visible in the dark as a column of burning ash, “now you die!”
He produced the glowing knot of the wyrding in a fist of roiling smoke and crimson fire. I braced for the final blow. I’d known this was coming, had been preparing for it, had rationalized it to the best of my ability. At that moment, my preparation failed me. I did not want to die, did not want to leave Kaye. I wanted to get to know my daughter, to see her grow, but I had nothing left: no magic, no bluffs, no time, no hope.
What makes a thing miraculous is that it is beyond hope, and yet transpires anyway.
I heard the slosh of liquid as my daughter’s birth caul broke, and the tiny gasp as she took her first breath. I felt, rather than saw, the net of wyrding that had been tied around her catch fire, burning away in an instant. Yellow-white and smokeless, this new flame raced up the skein of fate toward the pulsing glow in the High King’s hand.
With an inchoate scream of rage, the High King slashed at her. I watched, uncomprehending, as the High King’s belching reddish flames were themselves consumed, burning away to nothing as if they were leaves tossed into a forge. The High King’s cry shifted into one of pain. Then the fire ripping up the wyrding reached the nexus of light that was my doom… and everything exploded.
© 2014 Copyright Tof Eklund
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