A/N: Some explanation... I have nothing to do this summer, as I can't find a job. I've always wanted to write this story. The main characters you'll find within these chapters are so fascinating to me. So I've resolved to write a chapter a day and finally get this story down on paper.
Also... I love reviews.
Disclaimer: I own nothing you recognize and everything you do not.
The Mystic Circle
Book I: The Beginning
"Today is the day."
Her husband stirs, but shows no further sign of waking up. Her eyes flutter shut and her slender hands wander down her body to hug her domed belly. The sun is up already; she can feel its warmth playing on her face. Pools of sweat are already forming at her lower back and beneath her armpits and beads of perspiration are appearing on her forehead and upper lip. She wipes away a strand of hair that has stuck itself to her mouth and shoves her husband's shoulder. "Hestian, wake up, the baby is coming today."
Hestian's eyes open, glazed over with grog and sleep, but she knows he is awake because he grunts his disapproval. "What devil child would pick today to enter the world?" he asks. When Hestian is warmed up, his voice is a rich baritone that could lull a siren to sleep. Now it is throaty and phlegm-plagued. He rolls onto his side to face his wife and runs a finger down her cheek. "Could she have picked a more inconvenient day?"
"The baby doesn't pick the day, Hestian. God does."
"God did not pick this day for my child to be born." But he is sitting up now and running his hands over his chest, up his neck, his cheeks, his temples, and through his tangled hair, massaging his body into consciousness. "The sun is up?" She knows he was supposed to be up hours ago, for dawn's prayers, but they both slept through it and nothing could be done about it now. She uses her elbows and the strength of her forearms to sit up, letting the blanket fall to bare her shoulders, and watches Hestian dress in a robe too dark and too thick for a hot summer day.
He methodically pushes each pewter button through its individual woven loop, starting at the bottom of the robe. "Stay home." He pauses to look at her, eyebrows raised as though he is actually considering her suggestion. "It would be nice. Tell the elders you were up late praying and slept through the day. We could stay in the yard all day, squeeze berries into each other's mouths…"
She falls back against the pillows and he climbs into the bed beside her. "That would be blasphemous," he says, but reaches his arm around her shoulders and begins to decorate her hair with kisses. She snuggles into the crook where his arm meets his chest and giggles; then she stops and pushes him away, pushing herself into an upright position again.
"You would leave me alone the day your son is to be born?" she demands.
He sighs and withdraws his arm. "It is not just a day of prayer today, Azalea. We have many blessings to bestow today. The new water well, the Feldagore triplets – "
"They were born three months ago!"
"Yes, but can you remember the last time we had a prayer meeting? Nearly five months now. And besides all that, there is something greater. Some trouble that our little swamp-village has not seen before. Azalea. They are saying we are being visited by witches."
Azalea looks quickly at her belly. "Witches?"
He stands from the bed and busies himself with the rest of his buttons. "Yes. You have heard the whispers like the rest of us. For years now, whenever someone visits us the rumors say 'witch.' But Azalea, now Efflecore is crying 'witch.'"
"Jedidiah Efflecore? An elder is crying 'witch'? I thought the church didn't believe in witchcraft."
"The church doesn't and until a week ago, neither did Efflecore. But he says he saw Adonis Evergreen waving a wand in his house. Now, why exactly Efflecore was looking in Evergreen's windows, I can't be sure, but Efflecore isn't one to tell tales." Hestian has laced up his boots as he has spoken and now stands, gathering his strawish hair in the back, securing it at the nape of his neck with a leather thong; Azalea has fallen silent. "If a witch preys upon our village, we must pray upon him. And upon ourselves," he adds as an afterthought. He disappears into the front room, then returns with a loaf of rye bread for Azalea. "Take care. Stay in bed; I'll send Camellia over." He scoops up his satchel and drapes it over his shoulder.
"Why not Primula?"
"Primula Efflecore will have her hands full today with Jedidiah at the meeting with me. She has her own children to watch over. I'll have Camellia fetch Primula the moment you show signs of labor, all right?"
"My priest husband absent and the dirty village grandmother present. This child, be it boy or girl, will not have a pleasant birth day." But she accepts his kiss.
"She won't even remember it." And with that, Hestian is gone.
Azalea takes to biting at her nails. Adonis Evergreen, suspected as a witch? He only joined the village less than a year ago, taking residence in a shack closer to the swamps than the rest of them. He kept to himself mostly, a quiet sort of fellow. Azalea couldn't say what he did for a living, but he was a live and seemed healthy enough. She could describe his physical appearance exactly: a straight nose, a pointed chin, fierce eyes, a slender frame. But perhaps most of the villagers could remember Adonis only for his long, straight black hair. Who was Jedidiah Efflecore to judge a man he barely knew? Then again, perhaps the lack of information about the village stranger was precisely what drove Efflecore to such an accusation. Adonis Evergreen, a witch… or warlock, perhaps he should be called…
The baby kicks and Azalea winces, instinctively rubbing the mound beneath the blanket.
Hot and bored, Azalea tears off a bite of the stale rye bread, pops it in her mouth, and chews. Repeat and repeat and repeat before finally, a knock at the door. "Dear, it's Nanny!"
"Come in, Camellia!"
The door slams against the wall when it opens and crashes when Nanny Camellia closes it with too much force. She hobbles into view, a gray woman with several shawls wrapped around her shoulders, a walking stick in one hand, and a basket of berries hanging from the crook of her elbow. "That boy of yours said you were going to spawn today, dear," says the old woman, her voice a dry croak, "and I'm here to see you through."
Azalea musters up a smile. "Thank you, Camellia."
"Oh, dear, call me Nanny." She drags a stool from a corner of the room and settles in beside the bed, then reaches out a wrinkled hand to pat the bundle beneath the blanket. She squints one eye and looks at Azalea. "It's a boy, that one."
"Hestian is hoping for a girl."
"No, no, I know these sorts of things. This one's a boy." She cocks an eyebrow. "And he isn't Hestian's, is he?" She grins.
Azalea smacks the woman's wrist. "How dare you!" But Nanny Camellia just cackles and withdraws her hand to grab a fistful of the purple berries and stuff them into her mouth. The juice seeps out at the edges of her lips, but she makes no effort to clean herself.
Azalea watches Nanny Camellia for a moment, then holds out her arm. "Help me up."
"Hestian said to keep you in bed. But then, when has Azalea ever been faithful to Hestian?"
Azalea opens her mouth to argue, but is overcome with a wave of exhaustion and decides to save her energy. She throws off the blanket and twists herself sideways; Nanny Camellia seizes her wrists and leans backwards, pulling with all of her might. With a final heave from the old woman and a last push against the bed with Azalea's calves, the pregnant woman is on her feet and struggling for balance. She puts her left hand on the small of her back and after pointing and instructing Nanny Camellia to fetch her robe, she wraps her right arm beneath the offending growth in front of her. She stands, all bony elbows and knobby knees and massive stomach, while the old woman fetches the garment and then turns to allow Nanny Camellia to assist her into the sleeves of the robe. Leaving the buttons undone, Azalea returns her hands and arms to their positions carrying her back and obtrusive abdomen and waddles her way into the front room. Easing herself into a wooden chair, Azalea asks Nanny Camellia to brush her hair with a decidedly polite tone of voice.
And so the day wears by. Nanny Camellia brushes Azalea's hair for longer than is necessary; they feast on rye bread and berries; a little after midday, the old woman retires to a chair and begins to chatter about old folklore. For a little while, she chants nursery rhymes to Azalea as if she is a child, but eventually they both fall silent. The heat intensifies, then backs off as the cooler evening hours approach. Azalea chews on another bite of rye bread – her temperature is increasing again, though the weather outside is breezy. Nanny Camellia has fallen asleep in her chair and a lines of drool now join the berry juice at the corners of her mouth and down her chin.
Azalea coughs, trying to wake the old woman gently, but with no success. "Nanny Camellia?" she whispers. "Nanny Camellia." The woman only snorts and shifts in her chair.
A sharp pain and something bursts from within – Azalea yelps without intention. Nanny Camellia is up and ready without a second question. "Into the bedroom," she announces, and helps Azalea up, through the little house, and to the bed. "Now, you breathe deeply and sharply," the woman says, "and here." She produces a little muslin pouch from her basket, stained in violet patches from the berries. "If the pain comes again, chew these leaves. I'm to fetch Primula the moment you show signs of labor, says Hestian." Nanny Camellia hobbles out of the room, out of the house, and out of earshot.
Azalea breaths deeply, then coughs, and reaches for the pouch. A collection of white and yellow leaves sit inside the pouch and though she doubts Nanny Camellia's herbal skills, she stuffs one in her mouth and chews like mad.
"Fetch Primula, Primula fetch, pretch Fimula, Fimula pretch," chatters Camellia as she hobbles her way toward the Efflecore home. "Primula!" she calls, her voice cracking from the attempt at volume. "Primula Efflecore, you're needed!"
A woman with swept-up hair appears in the open doorway, wiping her hands clean on her apron. "What do you want, Nanny?"
"Azalea Aribane is giving birth."
"Oh! Oh, Camellia, can you watch the boys for me? Jedidiah's at a meeting and – "
"Go on, then, girlie, I'll watch the little dears." Primula is off running without another word. Camellia cackles. "Something sinful is being born tonight."
When Primula arrives, she finds Azalea in bed, cold sweat mixing with hot tears. "What are you chewing?" she demands and has the pregnant woman spit it out into her hand. "Serpentsilk leaves? Azalea, where did you get these?"
The meeting adjourns at last. Hestian gathers his things as the elders mumble their farewells and scatter, then sends up a final, silent prayer in solitude. He locks the door to the church behind him and sets on the path to his home, where he supposes to be greeted by his wife and child. "Dear Lord, let it be a girl," he begs. "I cannot bare to lose another boy."
The sky is peeking its gilded face over the horizon, sprinkling pink and pale blue dust on the sky's edge. Hestian imagines what this child, boy or girl, will look like. Pale skin, blond hair, and warm, brown eyes – the features he and Azalea shared. Maybe her father's chiseled jaw, her mother's eyes set just a little too far apart, maybe her grandmother's button nose. He is weary from a day and a night of prayer, but he can't help but smile.
As he strides through the door and into the bedroom, he finds Primula Efflecore curled up on the floor, asleep. He steps over her to look at the bed where he finds Azalea sleeping quietly, holding a little baby in her arms, wrapped in a shawl. Hestian crawls into the bed beside his wife and tries to take the child into his own arms, but the infant begins to cry. Azalea's eyes quiver and then open. She hesitates, then smiles up at Hestian as he takes the child in his own arms.
Green eyes and a shock of black hair. Hestian's brow furrows and he frowns, but he shakes his head clear and brushes it aside.
"Hestian, this is Eli," says Azalea.
Eli Aribane. Hestian smiles and kisses the forehead of Adonis Evergreen's son.