If you want to read the whole story so far, Follow this link to Episodes 1-20
Discarding the light blanket Mayebelle has wrapped around me, I scrabble in the spring-damp mold of the forest floor. Pain in my midsection redoubles, but I crawl to the edge of the road and use a handy rowan sapling to hoist myself up.
“Maddock!” I would have run to him, but little Priscilla or Madeleine or Jane will not be ignored.
A contraction tightens like a band of iron across my stomach. The figure on the path is running now. Running toward us. My womb convulses, and I’m sure I’m about to die. Mayebelle pulls me back to the warmth of the makeshift pallet of leaves and spare clothes and pushes me on my back.
“It’s real, isn’t it, Mayebelle?” I can’t see past her solid form and a nagging fear whispers to me, telling me the castle and Maddock are wishful visions only. “It has to be real this time.”
Mayebelle glances over her shoulder. When she turns toward me, her face is in shadow. “It’s real, my dear, but what it means I cannot guess.”
Through insistent pain, I vaguely feel his steps vibrate through the rocky ground, vaguely hear his voice.
“What’s wrong? Mayebelle, what’s wrong with her?” His voice sounds so real but I keep my eyes closed tight, convinced he will dissolve into nothing if I open them.
“She’s having a child, you fool.” Mayebelle hikes my skirt and splays my legs apart, peering at my groin. “Right now, by the look of it.”
A warm hand grasps mine. Solid arms support me. My eyes spring open with his touch. I trace the line of his jaw, the curve of his lips. A quizzical expression on his face, he snaps his gaze from Mayebelle to me.
“How did this happen?”
Mayebelle glares at him with her one good eye. “What an idiotic thing to say.”
She returns to her perusal of my privates and shifts my pelvis into a different configuration. Aching, gnawing pain in my abdomen redoubles and the pressure on my nether regions becomes nearly unbearable. I squeeze Maddock’s hand.
“Where have you been? Where is Lucia?” I gasp out the questions. The intervals between contractions diminish to nothing. “She mustn’t get little Ruth or Mary or Esther.”
His La Croix eyes flash. “That will not happen.”
A contraction draws me upright, but my cries are more of frustration than pain.
“No time for news, dear. This baby is most insistent to be born.” Maybelle pats the inside of my leg encouragingly. “A few good pushes and we’re finished.”
She snaps at Maddock. “Stop gaping like an overripe fish. Sit behind her, brace her back.”
“We need to join the others. Our strength is in numbers.” Maddock sits behind me, stretching his legs on either side, wrapping warm arms around me. “How long is this going to take?”
“Don’t be an idiot. Do as you’re told.” Mayebelle straightens the blanket beneath my hips and lays a steady hand on my tummy. “Push, dear.”
As if she has to tell me. Birth is on automatic pilot at this point. All I know is that Maddock’s arms support me, Maddock’s lips whisper encouragement, Maddock’s heart beats against my back.
Three grinding pushes and the baby slips into Mayebelle’s waiting hands. Mayebelle swaddles the wriggling child with a soft cotton towel and lays her on my chest.
Maddock and I look at her for the first time. Little arms and legs stretch, free at last. A sheaf of hair, tawny and wet, lies plastered on her oval crown. She sneezes, expelling the last of the amniotic fluid. Tiny fingers curl around Maddock’s thumb and milky blue eyes, strangely alert for such a tiny child, blink in her damp, red face. I lean back in Maddock’s arms, spent but elated.
“I’ve only been gone a few minutes, Allium,” he whispers. “Just a few short minutes.”
Episode 22: A Vial of Time
Mayebelle finishes her midwife duties with precision and skill. A few minutes later, I am warm and dry and contented though I can barely raise my hand above the coverlet. The baby emits a series of shrieks, protesting the cold air and the outrage of being pulled from one world to another.
“What a lot of noise and bother for such a little thing.” Maddock holds the baby in both arms, careful to support her head, careful to keep the blanket snug around her. Her cries soften as he gently rocks her to and fro.
“Impressive how well you do that right out of the gate.” I am entirely exhausted and afraid to move for fear my muscles will refuse even the slightest request.
“I’ve held babies before.” He plants a soft kiss on our child’s forehead. “Never one as beautiful as this one, of course.”
“Where have you been, Maddock?”
Stirred from his reverie, he scans the valley, the forest, the sky. He hands the baby to Mayebelle. “We must be on our way back to the others. No one should be alone. Can you walk?”
As it turns out, I can’t. The long journey, not to mention eight months of fear and longing have taken their toll. “I’m afraid I can’t even stand up.”
“Never mind, then. “Maddock lifts me into his arms. My head fits perfectly into the spot just below his collar bone and I decide this is infinitely preferable to walking.
“Don’t bother gathering these things, Mayebelle. We’ve already lingered too long on our own.” Maddock strides surely down the slope. Mayebelle brings up the rear with the baby and our hastily gathered kit.
The sun, well above the mountains by now, beams between still-bare branches of oak and sycamore but beneath the pines dappled shadows play across our path. A fresh cool breeze ruffles my hair. Not a cloud darkens the cobalt blue sky, but a dark foreboding gnaws.
“If you don’t tell me what happened, I’m going to explode. Where have you been? Where is Lucia?” A delicious odor wafts up the hill. I lift my head from its resting place on Maddock’s chest. A rumble in my stomach reminds me I haven’t eaten anything in uncounted hours. “And what is that delectable smell?”
Spirals of smoke rise from the ruined castle in the center of Highmoor Valley. Smaller fires, kindled by Darkmore and La Croix wedding guests, burn along the riverbank. The smell of food lifts on the spring breeze along with the murmur of conversation and the occasional shrill laugh. Roast beef. I definitely smell roast beef. After days of eating nothing but oatmeal scones, my mouth waters and my stomach gurgles.
“Never let attempted murder and a burned castle ruin a good party. That’s the La Croix motto.” Maddock slows his pace a fraction. “My story is brief. I used a time crystal.”
Mayebelle walks close behind us. I peek at her over Maddock’s shoulder. Her scarred face pales and she gasps at Maddock’s revelation. “No one understands how those crystals work. They are infinitely more dangerous than Lucia.”
Maddock grunts in agreement. “When Lucia set the castle alight, I didn’t know what else to do. No time to measure, you see, to say the proper words. Allium pulled all that energy for her bloody death spell and I had to be quick before she scourged the entire valley.”
“I was cornered. I thought you were dead.”
“Do all Darkmores have such a penchant for drama?” He squeezes me fondly.
“How did you get your grimy La Croix paws on the Darkmore’s treasured time crystals?” My wits circle like a wayward flock of pigeons.
“I wonder the same thing.” Mayebelle limps as quickly as she can. Maddock slows so she can walk beside us. “The Darkmores and the La Croixs have fought wars over those tiny crystals.”
“Aunt Clarissa gave me a vial of the stuff when we announced our marriage. She said if I was foolish enough to marry a Darkmore, I’d better share the responsibility of guarding the past and the future. She takes it quite seriously.”
“And you wondered if she likes you.” I snuggle against his chest.
“To those of us in the castle, only a few minutes passed. The time crystal shimmered above the table like a star. Lucia knew what it was at once and she skewered me with the nastiest scowl you’ve ever seen. She disappeared in a puff of what looked suspiciously like sulphuric smoke. You Darkmores do love your little embellishments. Time warped around us. The crystal dissolved in a millisecond. Once the others realized what had happened, they streamed out the doors. The castle was lost, but they saved what they could.”
“So Lucia is on the loose after all. I’d hoped . . .”
“Never fear. It seems each and every one of our refined and sophisticated guests came to our wedding armed to the teeth. You’ve never seen the like of such handily draw spells. Such conveniently available amulets and charms. Such accessible hexes and potions. It’s a miracle no one was vaporized accidentally.”
“What did you expect?” Maybelle sniffs. “You two were the only ones who believed in peace and harmony.”
“I didn’t know how far into the future we’d been flung. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when I heard you cry out.” He tightens his arms around me. “I’ve told you mine, now tell me yours.”
The terror of the night Maddock disappeared, the long months of hopeless waiting as our baby grew inside, the cold forbidding winter, and the despair I felt when I looked down on this valley only last night fade with the morning mist.
“It doesn’t bear repeating.” A little tremble along my spine is all that remains. “Someone is cooking roast beef. I can smell it.”
I’ve dreamt of returning to this valley many times in the past months––imagined a thousand ways the reunion might go. War and death and fear seemed likely results of Lucia’s most recent atrocity. It becomes clear as we approach the group of Darkmores and La Croixs none of my imaginings came close to reality.