SHE GIVES BIRTH in mud and mire.
She squats and strains under the fog-shrouded bower of a gnarled cottongum. Vines choke the massive tree, dragging its limbs to the mossy hillocks and draping leaves into the boggy waters of a slow-moving stream. To her side, a trunk as wide as a horse twists around and around, as if the tree were seeking to escape these drowned lands.
She sweats and pants, her legs wide under her. Overhead, her hands remain clamped to a vine. As she hangs there, thorns pierce her palms, but the pain is naught compared to the final contraction that rips her wider and pushes the babe from her womb. She stifles her scream, lest the hunters should hear her cries.
Still, a moan escapes her, wordless from her lack of a tongue. As a pleasure serf of Azantiia, she was never allowed the luxury of speech.
With one last push, she feels the release. The child spills from her and drops to the wet mud underfoot. She slips off the vine. Impaled thorns rip her palms open. She slumps to the mud with the babe between her thighs. The child is still tied to her by a twisted bloody cord.
She sobs with wracking heaves and picks up the skinning knife near the base of the cottongum. The hunting blade is not her own, neither is the blood that already stains it. The knife was thrust into her hands by her savior, by a man who broke a vow to help her escape the castle keep. After sailing across the Bay of Promise, under the glowering eye of a winter’s sun, pursued by the king’s legion, they had made landfall along the treacherous coast of Mýr. Its shoreline was less land and more a blurring where the blue sea met the brackish waters lined by a drowned mangrove forest. Once the skiff could traverse no farther into the swamps, her rescuer had sent her off on foot, while he poled the skiff away, intending to lead her pursuers elsewhere.
Alone now, she slices his blade through the thick cord, freeing the babe from her body and from her past. She had thought herself emptied, but her belly convulses again. She gasps as blood and tissue flow out, washing over the babe. Fearing the child would drown with its first breath, she wipes the baby’s face clean. Its eyes remain closed to this harsh world. Her torn palms smear more blood. Still, she reveals little pursed lips—too blue, nearly black in the shadows.
Breathe now, little one …
She rubs and prays.
One prayer is answered when the child sucks in its first breath, stirring, only slightly, but enough. Her other prayer is ignored when she discovers her child is a girl.
She picks up the knife again. She lowers the blade to the baby’s throat.
Better this …
Her hand trembles. She leans down and kisses a brow furrowing toward a first cry at this harsh world. She prays, both as apology and explanation. Be free from me. From my past. From my shame. From those who would take you.
Before she can act, the Mother Below punishes her for daring to forsake the gift granted to her womb. Her stomach clenches again. Hot blood pours out between her thighs. The pain is at first fiery—then turns to a dreadful cold. And still the flow continues, pouring her life into the mud.
She reads the truth in the spreading stain.
Having been raised among the pleasure serfs, she had assisted midwives with other girls who had found themselves with child, despite the teas of Bastard’s Herb. Over the passing two decades, she had witnessed births in all their myriad forms: some joyous, others fearful, most with resignation. All had involved tears. There had been blood, shite, torn flesh, babes born backward, others deformed by the teas, or bodies broken by their own mothers in attempts to end the child’s life before it was born. When she was very young, she had reviled the latter. She had not known then what it meant to be a child born under the whip, to be eventually broken under the heaving throes of a master.
She eventually learned the hard and necessary lessons.
She stares down at the knife at her daughter’s throat.
By now, blood pools heavily under the babe. The scent draws flies and suckers. As she stares down into eyes just now peeking open, the forest grows hushed, as if awed. Birdsong falls silent, leaving only the hum and whine of insects. A new noise intrudes. A heavy splash to her right.
She stirs her cooling flesh enough to turn her head. Even this small movement closes the darkness tighter around her. From the sluggish current of the swamp, a reptilian beast thrashes onto shore. Claws gouge the muck, dragging its massive length, led by a snout edged by sharp teeth. Though eyeless, it aims unerringly through the reeds and moss, drawn by her blood as surely as the biting flies.
Her instinct to protect overwhelms the bitter lessons of her past. She lifts the blade from her daughter’s neck and threatens the approaching beast. But she knows she can inflict no more than a pinprick—if even that. The reptilian hunter is twice her length, ten times her weight. She senses its age, reads the centuries in the thick growth of emerald moss fringing its black scales.
Despite its age, it barrels faster toward her, blind to the knife and all its uselessness. It carries with it the reek of carrion and brackish waters. The moss across its back and flanks glows faintly in the forest shadows.
Still, she kneels over her child. She is too weak even to stand. Her arm quakes to hold up the dagger. Darkness continues to pinch her world smaller and smaller.
She girds herself for the heavy strike to come, as she did many nights in the perfumed beds of her masters. Her body was never her own.
Anger flares through her. Even this fire had been forbidden to her in the past. In this last moment, she takes hold of that flame and screams the last of her strength away. She closes her eyes and cries to the heavens, at the beast, at herself, at a child that would never get to live.
For the first time in her life, she is truly heard.
A piercing cry rings forth from the skies. The screech is less heard with her ears than with her entire body. The scream cuts through her skin, sharp enough to reach bone. The force lifts the hairs over her body. She opens her eyes and sees the reptilian beast slide to a stop in the mud, coming to rest no more than an arm’s length from her. Panicked, the beast twists and writhes to turn its massive bulk, to return to the safety and succor of black water.
Before it can, branches shatter overhead. A shadow dives through the canopy and crashes into the beast. Sickle-shaped claws cleave through hard scale. Bones break under the impact of a creature as large as a hay cart. Leathery wings snap outward, striking her broadside, knocking her from her child.
She is flung far and crashes into the twisted trunk of a tree. She collapses amidst the tangle of its roots. From her side, she watches those heavy wings beat once, lifting the creature back into the air. The reptilian beast is carried aloft. Impaled claws rip it into halves and fling its centuries-old body back into the dark waters.
Then the winged creature lands in the mud.
It swings toward her, revealing its malignant splendor. It holds high its leathery wings, thin enough at the edges to see the sparkle of patchy sunlight through them. It keeps its head low, close to the ground. Large tufted ears swivel toward her. Its long slitted nostrils fan open wider, rippling, testing the air. It hisses at her and raises a furred ridge along its short neck and arched back.
She knows this beast, all of Azantiia knows them, the terror of the swamps, the dreaded Mýr bats, the poisonous denizens of the shrouded volcanic mountain—The Fist—at the heart of these drowned lands. Stories abound of these creatures—though few had ever lived to tell a tale of such an encounter. No hunter had ever returned with such elusive, dangerous prey. Not even their bones had ever made it into one of the castle’s bestiaries.
With her heart choked in her throat, she studies the monster before her.
Merciless eyes, as cold as black diamonds, stare back at her. A continual hiss flows from its throat. Her hairs shiver to a sound beyond hearing. She feels it in her teeth, in her skull, playing across the surface of her brain, like an oil fire on water. She knows she is being studied more deeply than any eye could discern.
Its lips wrinkle back in threat, exposing long fangs, glinting with a sheen of poison. It stalks closer to her, knuckling on its wings.
No, not closer to her—but toward the baby in the mud.
Tiny limbs paddle at the air, as if beckoning the beast.
She tries to move to her daughter’s defense, but she has lost her knife. Not that it mattered. She has no strength left to even crawl. Her body is as cold as the mud under her. All that is warm are the tears coursing her cheeks. Knowing there is nothing more she can do, she accepts the inevitable and sags into the tree’s roots.
Darkness embraces her.
Before it consumes her, she stares one final time upon her child. While she failed to give the girl a life, she had given her a gift almost as precious.
Her freedom—as brief as it might be.
She takes solace in this as the shadows erase the world.
But another was not so easily satisfied.
As she fades away, she hears her babe’s first cry, lustful and angry. She can do nothing to comfort that wail at a life cut before it has begun. Instead, she offers her final counsel, a lesson hard learned.
Better to die free, my daughter.
NYX SOUGHT TO understand the stars with her fingertips.
Near blind, she had to lean far over the low table to reach to the heart of the orrery, to the warmth of the bronze sun at the center of the complicated astronomical mechanism. She knew the kettle-sized sphere had been filled with hot coals prior to the morning’s lesson, to mimic the life-giving heat of the Father Above, who made His home there. She held her palm toward that warmth, then took great care to count outward along the slowly turning rings that marked the paths of inner planets around the Father. Her fingers stopped at the third. She rested a tip there and felt the vibrations of the gears that turned this ring, heard the tick-tick-ticking as their teacher spun the wheel on the far side of the orrery to drive their world to Nyx’s waiting hand.
“Take care, child,” she was warned.
The device was four centuries old, one of the school’s most precious artifacts. It was said to have been stolen from the courts of Azantiia by the founding high prioress and brought to the Cloistery of Brayk. Others claimed it wasn’t stolen, but crafted by the prioress herself, using skills long lost to those who lived and taught here now.
“Better not break it, Dumblefoot,” Byrd blurted out. His comment stirred snickers from the other students who sat in a circle around the domed chamber of the astronicum.
Their teacher—Sister Reed, a young novitiate of the Cloistery—growled them all to silence.
Nyx’s cheeks heated. While her fellow students could easily observe the intricate dance of spheres around the bronze sun, she could not. To her, the world was perpetually lost in a foggy haze, where movement could be detected in shifts of shadows and objects discerned in gradations of shimmering outlines in the brightest sunlight. Even colors were muted and watery to her afflicted eyes. Worst of all, when she was inside, like now, her sight was smothered to darkness.
She needed to touch to understand.
She took a deep breath and steadied her fingers as the small sphere that marked their world rotated into her hand. The bronze ring to which it was pinned continued to turn with the spin of the wheeled gears. To keep her fingertips in place atop the fist-sized sphere of their world, she had to scoot around the table. By now, the bronze sun had heated one surface of the sphere to a subtle warmth, while the opposite was cold metal, forever turned from the Father.
“Can you now better appreciate how the Mother always keeps one face perpetually gazing at the Father Above?” Sister Reed asked. “A side that eternally burns under His stern-but-loving attention.”
Nyx nodded, still circling the table to match the sphere’s path around the sun.
Sister Reed addressed both her and the other students. “And at the same time, the other side of our world is forever denied the Father’s fierce gaze and remains frozen in eternal darkness, where it is said the very air is ice.”
Nyx did not bother to acknowledge the obvious, her attention fixed as the Urth completed its circuit around the sun.
“It is why we live in the Crown,” the sister continued, “the circlet of the world that lies between the scorched lands on one side of the Urth and those forever frozen on the other.”
Nyx ran her fingertip around this circumference of the sphere, passing from north to south and back again. The Crown of the Urth marked the only hospitable lands where its peoples, flora, and fauna could flourish. Not that there weren’t stories of what lay beyond the Crown, terrifying tales—many blasphemous—whispered about those dreaded lands, those frozen on one side, scorched on the other.
Sister Reed stopped turning the wheel, bringing the dance of planets to a rest. “Now that Nyx has had her turn to study the orrery, can anyone tell me why the Mother Below eternally matches her gaze with the Father Above, without ever turning her face away?”
Nyx kept her post, her fingers still on the half-warmed sphere.
Kindjal answered the teacher’s question. She quoted from the text they had been assigned to study this past week. “She and our world are forever trapped in the hardened amber of the void, unable to ever turn away.”
“Very good,” Sister Reed said warmly.
Nyx could almost feel the beam of satisfaction from Kindjal, twin sister to Byrd, both children of the highmayor of Fiskur, the largest town along the northern coast of Mýr. Though the town lay a full day’s boat ride away, the two lorded their status among the students here, proffering gifts on those who fawned over them, while ridiculing all others, often resorting to physical affronts to reinforce their humiliations.
Copyright © 2021 by James Czajkowski