Chills of mist skulked through the village. Doors were double-locked against the bite and from the creatures that came with it. Only fools stayed outside after darkness.
One soul watched the shadows, huddled close by his bright fire, the only beacon of light in the desolate quiet. The man had looked out for the village for years. Tonight was no different.
Inside one of the houses, a woman was breaking the hand of the midwife beside her. Through the cracks of bone, the midwife managed strained words of encouragement.
“Come on Maya, you can do it. The babe is ready.” The woman on the bed let out a moan, beads of sweat lining her forehead. Her eyes were closed, her lips contorted into a snarl.
“It’s taking its time,” she panted back, her body arching.
The midwife looked to the other woman down at the other end of the bed. Her apprentice nodded. This was a baby that was going to fight its way into the bleakness.
In the other room, Warren paced from wall to wall. He hadn’t seen his wife since midday; at the first signs of labour, the women had banned him from entering the room. In the time he had been waiting, he had worn down the already threadbare rug.
A scream tore through the tiny cottage. Warren crashed through to the bedroom, startling everyone in there. The midwife rolled her eyes but did nothing to push the husband away. She had done this a thousand times and it was always the same. Men never listened. Unless they were drowning their sorrows in mead. Her hands were slick to her elbows, her face red with exertion, but the smile on her face made all this irrelevant.
“You have a daughter,” she beamed. Taking a sharp knife from her assistant, she severed the cord in a clean sweep. Warren stared down at the mess of limbs, unable to believe that he and his wife had created this child. The midwife caught his stare and smirked. “You can hold her in a minute...just as soon as....”
She trailed off mid-sentence, the smile fading on her lips.
“What is it? Tell me woman.” Warren stepped forward, his heart pounding in his mouth. The midwife had frozen, leaving the baby exposed. Before their eyes, a smudge of raspberry red covered the left side of its face. Softly, the baby mewled and kicked two feet in the air. One was perfectly formed, the other, a stump that seemed to curl back.
“Take it,” the midwife snapped, trying to thrust the baby into the father’s arms. He backed away, stumbling in his haste.
“What’s wrong with my daughter?” Maya sobbed, trying to sit upright, her arms outstretched. Gratefully, the midwife all but threw the bundle back. Maya frowned and then uttered a small noise in her throat.
Warren had been pressed into the corner, his eyes as wide as the doe that roamed the forest. Now, he took a small step forward, then another, and another until he was above his wife. Gently, he took the bundle out of her arms, placing a tender kiss on his wife’s forehead.
“What are you going to do?”
“Pretend this never happened...” Warren’s voice was no longer his; someone else was staring out from behind the glassy eyes. Maya sobbed, making a half-hearted effort to reclaim the baby. Her hands reached out then fell back to her sides. With tears slowly trickling like molten jewels down her face, she turned her back and pulled the sheets over her.
With his lips pressed tightly together, the baby’s father left the room and entered the freezing night, letting the door slam behind him. As he stormed through the village, he clutched the bundle close, praying that no one would see him. He would say his wife lost the child, the demons had taken it,
The watchman looked up from his fire as the shadow flitted by. Straining his eyes, he could make out the shape of a broad man, tightly pressing something against his chest. By the way he looked around, the watchman knew he was up to something. Then he heard a soft snuffling and a wail. He knew what that sound was; two children and a fertile wife had educated him.
For the first time in the six years the watchman had been at his post, he stood up and followed the smuggler. The village could be left to the malevolence of the otherworld for a short while. He flicked his fingers and a powder of fine light settled above the rooftops. Just for good measure. As for the weather, even he wasn’t a god. He did a good job, but his powers didn’t extend to divine rights.
The man vanished into the bleakness of trees. Pausing for a moment, the watchman stood on the borders. Not only had he heard some of the tales that had come from these woods, but he had also played a part in making sure some of them didn’t reach the ears of the population. As for the bodies, he had sworn to secrecy never to reveal their secrets. The creatures in there wouldn’t hurt him; he could sense their interest every time he went in, but he never felt malignancy directed toward him. That child, however, who knew how they would react to it.
A deep breath and he ploughed in afterward, trying to step lightly through the tangled mess on the ground. Up ahead, he could see the silhouette of the man growing smaller and smaller. The watchman put on a burst of speed and eventually came to a halt just a few meters away, using the thick trunk of a tree to hide. Hardly daring to breathe, he watched as the man placed the babe down in the roots then turn and thunder back. Shrinking to let him pass, the watchman waited until he was sure the man was gone, then he crept over to the baby.
An arm had punched free from the cloth as the baby gurgled. Even in the weak moonlight that filtered in patches through the foliage above, he could see the stain on her face.