Authors: Tia Reed
Published by Tyche Books Ltd.
Copyright © 2015 Stephanie Schembri
First Tyche Books Ltd Edition 2015
Print ISBN: 978-1-928025-39-9
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-928025-40-5
Cover Art H. Leighton Dickson
Cover Layout by Lucia Starkey
Interior Layout by Ryah Deines
Editorial by M. L. D. Curelas
Author photograph: Dale Smith
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage & retrieval system, without written permission from the copyright holder, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.
The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third party websites or their content.
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations and events portrayed in this story are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to persons living or dead would be really cool, but is purely coincidental.
This book was funded in part by a grant from the Alberta Media Fund.
To my parents
THE TEMPEST BLEW
across the Seine with a ferocity unheard of in the living memory of Rouen. Struggling against the pounding waves, Hubin moored his boat. Like as not the patched vessel would splinter by morning, his entire livelihood gone.
With a frustrated cry, he trudged through the deluge, a firm grip on his meagre catch. He had no hope of forgetting on which night he stalked, not with his thumping heart and crawling skin. The demons skittered at the edges of his vision, shadowy, slippery, and deformed. They dogged his step. They tore at his rags and raked his skin. There was nothing to do but pull his shins from their claws. Shivering, he quickened his step into the screeching wind. By the gods, he would make it home alive.
His chest was tight when at last he reached the looming planks of his tiny hut. He pushed open the door and stumbled into the relative warmth. There he froze, dripping water while gusts whipped leaves past his bloodied legs. Regaining his senses, he braced his back against the door and shoved it closed.
“B-by the g-gods, not t-tonight, woman,” he said, shivering uncontrollably.
“By gods or devils it will be tonight,” the midwife replied, placing a cloth over his wife’s forehead.
Félicité squatted near the bed, swollen belly protruding rudely over bent knees. Her fretful eyes turned to him as she groaned and gripped the midwife’s hand.
“Not yet,” the midwife admonished. “Don’t you push yet,” she said above the howl of wind and whip of rain.
Hubin dropped his fish. His discomfort forgotten, he approached his wife. She was a vision, even with her lank hair plastered to her face. Nudging the leathery midwife aside, he clasped her thin shoulders.
“Hold off, woman,” he growled, more gruffly than he had intended. The gods had to applaud her effort. Her cheeks glistened with sweat despite the scant fire, her clenched teeth peeking through a grimace.
“I’m trying,” she grunted. The cloth dropped to the floor as a contraction wracked her fragile body.
The midwife pushed Hubin away. “You’ve no business being here,” she said, her worried face creased into deep wrinkles.
“If this babe comes tonight, you’ll need me here,” Hubin replied.
“Then you’d best dry yerself off. A sick protector ain’t no use at all. And keep yer eyes to yerself.” With an exaggerated huff, she picked up the cloth.
His wife moaned.
“Any other night, I’d shove a man into the eye of a storm. Any other night.”
“Quiet,” Hubin said as he slipped a dry shirt over his head. “You’re distressing her.”
“Ah, it’s no use. Push, luv.”
“No! It’s early yet.”
“You leave this be. It ain’t no man’s domain.”
Hubin formed a fist. “You see she keeps the babe till the morrow.”
The midwife shook her head as she mopped his wife’s brow. “Keep that anger for the devils outside these walls. This ain’t neither her choice nor mine. The babe wants to enter the world tonight and enter it will.”
The woman did well to scuttle from his stride. “I’ll not have it,” he said, but he calmed as he saw Félicité’s pained eyes and knelt so he could cradle her clammy face in his hands. “Don’t you birth this babe. We’re almost at the witching hour.”
Félicité gritted her teeth. “The angel,” she managed.
“Aye, he promised a son,” Hubin said, though his reassurance grated out of his throat. His enraptured wife had not glimpsed the bloodied fang lurking behind that heaven-sent pledge.
“This is killing her,” the midwife said. “You tell her to have that child.”
His wife gasped through the pain of another contraction. Hubin swung his arm in a futile gesture. It spun him away from the bed. “Do something.”
The midwife turned up her palms. “There ain’t nothing I can do. This is nature.”
“This is devilry.” Hubin slammed a fist against the wall. The sting in his knuckles was nothing compared to the terror gnawing at his innards. Defeated, he rubbed his hands over the hearth, attempting to still his nerves more than ease the itch of the chilblains. Outside, unsecured property banged against wall and stone. His boat was most likely among the missiles. By the cruel gods, he was sure this night would end his life.
His misery dragged into the wee hours. Exhaustion swayed him on his feet, and he let his eyelids droop. In a blurred slit of vision, he saw blue flames twist into a fearsome, writhing dragon. Its throat belched tongues of fire and its wings beat howling gusts.
Hubin jumped. Were it not the night it was, he would have dismissed his foolish dreaming. Instead, he prayed
the gods for mercy enough to delay the birth. His boat was theirs, his catch an offering, if they would just dam the child within the womb. More ardent a petitioner they could not have heard. He barely registered the midwife’s banter until she uttered the dreaded words.
“I see the head. Push now.”
“No! Stop.” Hubin scrambled for the offending body part. “Push it back in.” He jostled the midwife aside and hauled his wife onto a chair. Clamping hands on the slimy skull, he pushed.
Félicité screamed. The midwife elbowed Hubin in the neck, scratched his arms until he backed off.
“Ahh, no,” he cried, tearing clumps of hair from his head. He could curse the gods for abandoning him.
“Push. That’s it. We have it now. A boy. You have a boy.”
The babe wailed. For all the King’s gold Hubin could not have brought himself to gaze upon it. “What does it look like?”
“Like a healthy boy, ten fingers, ten toes, human right down to his button nose.”
Félicité arched her back and slipped to the floor. She gasped, then screamed again.
“Here,” the midwife said, urgent as the wind rattling through the cracks. Its caress was all ice. An omen that. “Take the child.” She thrust the babe at him.
He almost dropped it.
“You watch yerself.” Once again, the midwife reached beneath his wife’s rumpled gown.
The babe gurgled. It looked a marvel, this life he had helped create, with its screwed up face and tiny fists. But what devil might lurk inside the soul?
“Push,” the midwife cried, as more contractions gripped his wife’s frail body.
He tore his gaze from his son, watched as time swept by, until the temple bell tolled the coming of dawn.
“You have another,” the midwife cried. “Another son.”
Hubin took the wailing child. He was smaller, thickset, and darker of hair.
It should have been the other way around,
he thought as he brought the boys to Félicité, one cradled on each arm. She did not rise, but turned her head, a small, sweet smile upon her lips.
“They are perfect,” she whispered.
Truly did the children appear unblemished but her gaze was not on them. Hubin, seized by foreboding, fell to his knees.
“What’s wrong?” he asked the midwife, his breath catching as blood pooled between his beloved’s legs.
The midwife shook her head. “She held on too long. It was not an easy birth.”
“What do you mean?”
Félicité’s eyes glazed over. The midwife crossed herself and stared at his wife’s still form.
“Ah, nooo,” Hubin groaned though clenched teeth.
Outside the wind howled in pitiless mockery. The walls of the hut creaked. A heavy weight thumped onto the roof. The midwife glanced up and repeated the sign of the new religion. It was no deterrent at all to the claws scratching across the roof. Hubin raised his firstborn. Blood he might be, but this father would surrender the devil-born without a second thought. The moment a demon punched through the flimsy wood, the child would forfeit his life.
“A useless fool of a protector you are,” the midwife muttered, but when the noises faded, she sighed.
“Here, woman,” Hubin said, trying to offload the suspect child.
She shook her head and backed away. “One son she delivered to you safe with the morn. The other, he looks right enough. Close enough to the new day as to be all right, I say. She did her duty as a mother.”
Did more than that, he’d say. He strangled a sob as he looked upon a body gaunt and pale. They were brutal, callous gods to ignore his offerings and claim her this way. Hot tears ran down his cheeks and dropped, one on each child. His second born renewed his raucous plea for milk. It could only be devilry that his firstborn merely sucked on air. Such evil had no business focusing blue eyes on the mother he would never know. Eyes in which, in the instant before Hubin blinked away a tear, a blue dragon swirled. Chilled to the bone, he shook. It was a small mercy the beast dissolved in the space of his heart’s skipped beat.