A SOLSTICE OF FIRE AND LIGHT
Copyright 2022 c Angela R. Watts. All rights reserved.
The following chapter is a preview of the novel, A SOLSTICE OF FIRE AND LIGHT. Enjoy!
ONE | TO SAVE A LIFE
Port Hunya burned with a wickedness that drew the scoundrels from high and afar. Perhaps that’s why my brother and I made camp here. Perhaps our foolish and wild hearts wanted to taste the forbidden while we still could.
The bright stars twinkled in the pitch black sky above and I sucked in a deep breath of smoke and other foul stenches of the city. But a woman, especially one as small and as far from intimidating as one could get, couldn’t look at the stars for long in a place like this, and I had a job to do, so I redirected my attention to the cobblestone alley ahead. Moving like a cougar, I darted through the alleys and streets, heading towards the tavern.
Something about the city dragged me in, like a terrifying dance I couldn’t escape from. I had traveled to many different lands since my childhood—but no place repulsed me as much as this one.
Yet, we stayed.
But that was human nature.
I slipped into the tavern through the back door. The smells of alcohol, smoke, and other scents I chose to not identify flooded my nose, and I hurried to the backrooms.
Wilder and I had one rule: our Gifts must remain a secret, no matter the circumstances. This rule kept us alive and safe. But technically, I wasn’t breaking any rule tonight by leaving the ghetto without alerting Wilder, and I was only helping a friend. Surely that outweighed the risks.
Ida sat in the back room of the tavern, sifting through papers and stacks of coins. She didn’t bother glancing up, grunting at me as I slipped into the tiny, stuffed room. “Whatcha need?” The tavern keeper’s wife puffed smoke from her pipe.
“Katya is in labor,” I said, struggling to hide my excitement. “I’d like something for her pain, if I can replace this week’s payment—”
Ida huffed a laugh, standing on two stiff and sturdy legs. She shuffled over to a large brown bookshelf beside the desk. “Ya do plenty to earn yer money and some medicine.”
I gulped hard. Wilder had raised me never to accept charity. But we had no money, and perhaps Ida was right, and my dancing for the tavern every weekend was worth an extra token.
But if it wasn’t worth the gift? And my brother found out I’d accepted it without paying for it properly? I chewed my lip and Ida handed me a small vial.
“This should help with the pain,” she said. “But ya know, Dionne, if they need a healer—”
“We have no money.” I shook my head, tucking some of my long black hair behind my ear. Katya, like Wilder and I, lived in the streets. Since her husband’s death, she’d worked every job she could to prepare for the baby, but it didn’t amount to much. She certainly couldn’t afford a real healer if anything went wrong.
But nothing would go wrong, I reminded myself. It would be fine. Women have had children since the dawn of time, after all.
Ida tsked. “I can pay for a healer’s fee,” she said sharply. “Now hurry along then. And don’t dawdle, Dionne, if the medicine is needed.” Despite her gruff tone, the woman’s compassion stirred my spirit. I was not accustomed to it. Ida treated me fairly as a worker, but never as kind as the soft spot she had for Katya. I didn’t understand it, but it didn’t matter, so long as she helped Katya. I was younger and stronger; I did not need kindness.
A tigress, as Wilder once told me, did not need a family to rule a jungle.
I bowed slightly, gripping the vial. “Thank you, Ida.”
“Run.” Ida gestured to the door. “Gods know you’re too short to go far very fast, so make up for it.”
My cheeks burned—I wasn’t that small—but I ran out the door and out of the smelly and dim tavern. Rushing through the alleys, I left the busy streets behind and entered the part of the city where the street rats and peasants lived together. A few small shacks lined the river but most of us dwelled in tents and under shelters fastened with trees and twines. In the wee hours of the night, it lay quiet, with only a few menfolk sitting outside their abodes with pipes or drinks. That was another pathetic thing of human nature: men accepted their wives and children living in huts made of sticks while throwing their coins into drinks and tobacco.
I shook my bitterness away and darted into Katya’s tent, which sat a short distance from the riverside. The tent fabric had tatters and holes throughout, which let some moonlight slip into the little room, and a lantern burned on the dirt floor. Katya lay on her pallet, crying softly in pain. She was a tough woman, but she worked herself too hard. I doubted she’d rested enough for this. But what could have been done?
I knelt beside her and opened the vial, heart hammering. “Ida is a dear,” I said. “Look at what I got. This will help…” I scooted closer and smoothed strands of Katya’s wet, curly hair from her flushed face. “Here, try to take some.”
“Did you… you pay for it?” Katya forced.
“Hmhm! Barely cost me a thing.” I smiled. Lying had grown easy over the years. My whole life was a lie, after all. I learned to own that facade and make something grand of it. Or tried to.
“I’ll… pay you back.” Katya managed a few sips of the medicine and made a face.
I put the vial away and stood, gathering the spare linens and the big bowl of water I had boiled earlier. Worry gnawed at my gut. These weren’t proper conditions for a birth. But that was all I could do. Would it be enough? I’d never done this before, but none of the other women in the community had volunteered help at this hour, despite my pleas.
A tigress doesn’t need a family to rule the jungle, I told myself, fingers shaking as I took the supplies to the pallet. I thought a brief prayer to the gods above before helping Katya the best I could. Hours dragged on in the tiny, cool tent, the autumn winds ruffling at the jagged holes in the fabric around us. Katya muffled her cries and labored on. There wasn’t much for me to do but try to reassure her and make her as comfortable as possible. For the hundredth time in my nineteen years, I felt absolutely powerless.
Dawn caressed the world outside. In the same breath, I caught the newborn baby gingerly.
But something was wrong. I wasn’t sure what.
Katya’s voice was soft. “Let me see the baby, Dionne. You go on outside.”
My hands shook as I stared at the innocent little child in my arms. I didn’t understand–wasn’t he supposed to cry?
“Dionne, go.” Katya sat up weakly and took the baby from me, her pale face stoic.
I stood and quickly left the tent, lungs tight. Too tight. I couldn’t breathe. My head swam and I staggered as my knees buckled. I ran into a tall, broad figure.
Two strong hands gripped my shoulders. Wilder frowned down at me, dark brown eyes narrow. “What—” Then he stopped, jaw tightening. “Katya or the baby?”
I couldn’t respond, shaking, lump in my throat. Tears blurred my vision. Wilder pulled me into his arms, holding me close. He said nothing, stroking my hair; he was a solid rock when the world around me crashed and churned like ocean waves. Because that was my brother: steadfast and wise when I was broken and afraid.
The sunlight peeked through the tall, thick trees overhead and the breeze made me shudder. Or maybe I still shook from the flood of jumbled emotions.
I knew death.
I had killed a man before.
I had seen carnage. I had felt death’s kiss.
But it was different, seeing a baby, an innocent life, so frail like that.
Is he dead?
It was worse than the other forms of death. It was wrong. And my healing was not strong enough to even attempt to help—but it was too late now, wasn’t it? Even if I tried, it wouldn’t do anything.
Wilder released me and kissed my forehead. “Go clean in the river,” he said. “I will take care of it.”
Take care of it.
What did that mean? A burial?
“Wilder… If you do anything… It will end. We’ll be caught…”
“For death, or glory, everything ends,” Wilder said, something he said so often, but I did not want to hear it now.
“Clean up.” Wilder headed into Katya’s tent.
I gulped hard and went to the river, numb, like I was in another bad nightmare and didn’t know when I’d wake. I washed the blood from my hands downstream, the soft sounds of the forest engulfing me. Once clean, I splashed water on my face and tied my hair into a braid. Staring at my pale-faced reflection in the water, I steadied my breathing.
What had I done wrong? Had I harmed the baby?
I returned to the community and avoided the looks of a few men that passed by. I slipped into Katya’s tent and held my breath.
Wilder placed a small bundle into Katya’s arms.
It sniffled and sobbed. Katya pulled the baby boy close to her chest, eyes wide. “Y-you…”
“He was not dead,” Wilder said simply. “But he is breathing strong now. All is well.”
I stared, mouth dropping. The baby’s bright pink face wrinkled as it continued to cry: a stark contrast to the pale and blue little face from before.
Wilder had broken the rule.
Relief over the child’s saved life mixed with my horror at Wilder’s deed. Would Katya view his actions as lucky?
Or something magical to be condemned?
Katya soothed the baby, voice shaky. “I-I did not… did not know he could be saved, I thought he was gone…”
“He wasn’t.” Wilder stepped away. “Adrenaline can make us miss the final thread of life that remains, but all is well now.” He eyed me, tone steady. “Finish helping Katya, Dionne. I have to get to work.” He slipped out of the tent without another word.
It was true the baby had still had the slightest vein of life left—Wilder was not a necromancer.
But he had still broken the rule. And that was difficult to deny.
I met Katya’s scrutinizing stare.
What would happen now?
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