One of the characters in this chapter has a very pronounced accent. If you have trouble reading it, try saying her dialogue out loud to yourself in your best imitation of a Scot's brogue.
See the end of the chapter for Notes.
Once upon a time, in a land far far away from here there was a castle. It was built of grey stone and rose, tall and imposing, over the land at the top of a steep hill where the wind whistled through the crenelations and moaned around the towers. And the wind was moaning now, rattling the window-frames and banging the shutters against the stone walls of the tallest tower.
Inside that tower, a woman was shrieking.
Her name was Fiore, and her hair was like a river of gold it was so bright, her skin like porcelain, and her lips like the petals of cherry blossoms. She was so beautiful that she made poets weep and painters throw down their brushes in anguish, and now she was dying.
The baby refused to come. Baroness Fiore the Beautiful, the Good, the Gentle... Baroness Fiore was dying because her child could not come into the world.
The Baron paced outside the door in the hallway, his hands clasped behind his back and clenching until the knuckles showed white with every gasp that managed to reach through the oaken door to his ears. Fiore had been in labor for a day and a night now, and her strength was failing.
At one point, the Baron's wife had screamed. Baron Gaerth had hated that, and had flinched every time the dreadful sound had echoed down the corridor in which he paced. Now, however, he heard only the occasional gasp and whimper, and he had realized that the long silences between each sound were far more terrible than the once-continuous noise. Screaming meant that Fiore was still fighting and struggling to give birth to their child. Silence meant that her strength was deserting her when she needed it most.
Gaerth bowed his head and paced more, up and down the long corridor. None of the servants that passed him by dared to speak to him, fearing an outburst of rage. They crept past their baron like mice around a maddened cat, attempting to hide behind whatever they carried and not daring to meet his eyes.
All except one, of course.
The first that Baron Gaerth saw of the old woman was the top of her white-haired head, she was so small. She was standing directly in front of where he wished to walk, her bony hands planted on her equally bony hips, refusing to move aside for him.
"Ist tha t'Baron?" she asked. Her voice was sharp and quick, though accented like that of a peasant from the northern provinces. Gaerth was certain that he had never seen her before in his life. For one thing, he would have remembered a servant who dared to treat him with such a lack of respect. For another thing, she didn't wear the uniform of a maid or cook of the castle.
"Aye, goodwife, I am the Lord of this keep," Gaerth said, and edge to his voice. "Now be about your business. I will accept petitions for judgements later on."
"Ah've not caeme here fer enny judgement o' thine, tha knows," the old woman said. She took a step back from him and looked up. Her face was brown and wrinkled like a walnut, and her eyes were like pieces of glittering onyx set deep in her aged face. Her mouth was set in a frown.
"Yon lady be a-dying, Baron," the old woman said, nodding her head towards the door. "An' t'midwife canna do aught, fer this babby dinna want t' come 'long nae matter the coaxin'. Ye'd best marry again if yez would be a'wanting o' an heir to thine high seat."
The Baron blinked slowly, shocked by the blatant disrespect that the woman was showing him. Finally, though, he found his tongue and remembered how to use it: "You... you... Woman! I am the Baron of Highguard, and you have no right to speak to me in such a way! Guards!"
"Tch. Hesh thy bawlin', laddybuck, afore tha says sommat mair foolish than what tha hast already spoken," the crone sniffed, looking unimpressed. Despite the baron's shouted command, there was a distinct lack of guards in the long corridor, and even the sounds of running feet and jingling armor were absent.
Gaerth narrowed his eyes at the old woman. "Who are you?" he demanded. "And what are you doing in my castle?"
The crone shrugged in a bored fashion as a fresh wail came through the door, one that had the Baron looking back over his shoulder to glance nervously at the oaken portal.
"Ah came a'cause ah thought there might be some need o' me, but 'pparently 'tis not sae. G'day to tha, Baron," the old woman said. She turned and began to shuffle down the corridor.
Something clicked in the Baron's mind. "Wait!" Gaerth called after the woman, running up to her and grabbing her arm. He fell to his knees in front of her, bringing their heads level. "Are you an enchantress? Is that how you entered my castle without being stopped by my guards?"
"Ah'm reckoned t'be one o' the Wise, aye," the old woman said, jerking her arm out of Gaerth's grasp. "Though tha knows Ah had hopes o' thee realizin' a wee bit sooner 'n this."
"Please," Gaerth begged, "Save my wife and child. I will reward you richly - "
"Ah've nay use fer siller, nor fer gilt. Yez can keep thine coffers closed and thy lady's grave dug, if tha thinks t'would take mere metal to buy two lives thatter nigh lost t' the Kindly One."
"Anything you ask, I will give, so long as my wife is saved and my child is born alive," Gaerth said. "I swear it on my sword." And with those words the Baron drew the weapon from the scabbard at his waist. He kissed the blade reverently to seal the oath and offered the weapon to the crone hilt-first. The old woman tapped the pommel with one yellowed fingernail, muttered a few terse words, nodded once, and then swept past Gaerth and opened the door to the bedchamber.
The midwife was told in no uncertain terms to get out, and Baron Gaerth lingered in the doorway as the old woman threw open the windows to let the biting November wind into the room. The herbs that the midwife had placed around the bed were thrown into the fire, the charms and amulets were tossed out the window, and the incense was dumped into the chamber pot to follow the charms.
"Bring me hot water and soap!" the woman called. Baron Gaerth turned to the hallway where a small crowd had gathered, but a butler was already racing towards the kitchen with a large basin. He returned minutes later, walking carefully now with the basin filled halfway and steaming. A bewildered-looking page followed him, carrying a bar of soap.
The woman jammed a bony elbow into Gaerth's ribs, forcing the man aside so that he wasn't blocking the doorway. She accepted the basin and soap, and then shut the door in the collective faces of everyone who had gathered in the corridor.
Long hours went by, with not a sound from the chamber. Baron Gaerth fell asleep wrapped up in his cloak, sitting on the floor beside the door with his back to the wall. He wasn't sure how much time had passed when a foot nudged his hip, inciting him to wakefulness.
The Baron looked up, into the wrinkled brown face of the crone. "Did your magic work?" he demanded hoarsely, his mouth having suddenly gone dry. "Does my Lady live? Is my child alive?"
"Aye an' aye an' Ah wish t'were na sae," the wisewoman snapped. "Yez can see, if that be what tha wishes."
Baron Gaerth got to his feet and walked into the room. The shutters had been closed and the hearth fire crackled, slowly dispelling the chill in the room. The air smelled of herbs that the King didn't recognize, and a small white mongrel that he didn't remember was curled up on the bed, on top of the Baroness's feet.
The Baroness. Fiore.
Baron Gaerth's heartbeat stuttered once when he saw how still she was lying, looking small and vulnerable beneath the blankets with her bright gold hair snarled into sweaty tangles. For a moment, he thought that his Lady had died, but then he saw the rising and falling of her breast as she breathed, and a tight knot in his chest suddenly unwound itself and his breathing eased. Fiore was merely asleep, not dead.
"And the child?" Gaerth asked in a whisper, not wanting to disturb the sleeping woman. The crone gestured to a small blanket laid in front of the fire, using a quick flick of her wrist that seemed almost disgusted. Her wrinkled face was drawn in an angry scowl.
Gaerth knelt down and peered at the small figure lying on the blanket.
The baby's skin was as white as new milk, each tiny limb perfectly formed. Its eyes were open, however, revealing two brilliant blue orbs that instantly focused on the man's face that loomed above it. Its mouth opened, to reveal a mouth with a full set of small white milk-teeth. It already possessed a full head of hair, and drawing back the blanket revealed that there was already hair under the arms and at the groin.
Gaerth drew back from the blanket, repulsed. "This... this is a strange child," he breathed, making the sign to ward away evil with his left hand. He made the sign for protection with his right, and touched the iron of his sword to call upon whatever spirit might reside in the metal.
"So 'tis," the wisewoman growled, spitting into the fire and crossing her arms over her chest. "Yer lady ha' a'meetin' wi' a goblin man afore she knew tha, Baron. An' sech ista fruit o' tha union. Ah wud say t'puh a blanket o'er et 'till et breathes nay mair, and say et were borned dead. Nay good 'twill come o' sech a child. If tha hast e'en a single care fer thine fiefdom, kill et an' be done. Yez can make another heir."
"No," Gaerth said firmly. "Another child would kill Fiore, and I will not risk her life in such an endeavor."
"Yez canna see inta the future, Baron. How does tha know sech things fer certain?" the crone snapped.
"I know it," Gaerth replied. "I know it the way I know the sun will rise tomorrow and I know it the way my hand knows my sword."
"Ach. Sech deep lore ye possess. So yez want t'keep yer bastard, then?"
"Well, Ah pity thee. Yer bastard be a-dying e'en as we twain be a-wagging our tongues. Et doesna cry, et doesna wail, it doesna kick. Ets heart canna sustain et. Yez cannae mix goblin-blood and human wi'out sufferin' an' death."
Gaerth latched onto the phrase that offered salvation. "So the babe's heart is the problem?" he demanded.
The crone reluctantly nodded, still scowling fiercely.
"There is a trio of dwarves who don't live very far from here," Gaerth said, thinking out loud as he shifted his gaze from the crone to stare out the window and into the distance. "They will accept iron and gold and silver for their services, and dwarvish craftsmen know metal better than any human or elvish smith alive. They will make my child a heart. A clockwork heart."
"Yer child?" the crone said. "Et be yer daughter tha ist a-speakin' of, alongside thine own madness. Yez canna do this, Baron. Yez be bringin' damnation 'pon tha-self."
Gaerth ignored the old woman, reaching out one hand to touch the baby's cheek. The blue eyes focused on him again, as wide and innocent as a midsummer sky. Nothing evil could have eyes like that, the Baron was certain. If the child was evil, there would be some mark, some sign... many women had difficult births, after all...
Gaerth ignored the crone's warning. "How long can the child live as she is?" he. demanded.
"Three days, yer verra foolish Highness. Three days an' three nights. The price Ah name fer savin' yer Lady wife Ah name now: kill yer bastard, Baron. Kill et and be done w' it. If sense willna make thee do right, then Ah will lean a wee bit on yer honor. Yez swore an oath 'pon thy sword, and so yez must obey."
The Baron's voice was quiet but firm. There was a long silence that followed it.
"Yer oath, Baron," the crone said. Her voice was like ice.
"I said no, goodwife," Gaerth replied, in the same voice. He stood and looked away from the newborn, turning his gaze on the crone. "You will be richly rewarded for your services here. Three pounds of silver and one of gold you shall have, as well as fine white bread and red wine from my own cellars. There will also be - "
The witch spat on the Baron's boot and spun on her heel, marching swiftly out the door and slamming it behind her. After a few moments of shocked silence Gaerth sat down on the floor beside his bastard and took off his boot, then watched as the acid slowly burned through the leather. From the bed, the mongrel growled.
For those of you who are encountering me and my stories for the first time, the bottom of the chapter will contain clarification on any customary/religious point that isn't native to our own world (i.e. stuff that I made up). If you encounter a strange word or phrase in the following chapters, scroll to the bottom for a quick explanation of it.
Kindly One: the goddess of death, specifically the goddess of women who die in childbirth and children who die very young. As it is considered improper to speak the name of a deity outside of a temple when not swearing an oath, she is referred to as "The Kindly One" by everyday folk. Her priests and priestesses may use her proper name in their services.