The Queen's Blade Prequel I - Conash: Dead Son, страница 1
The Queen’s Blade Prequel I
Conash: Dead Son
T C Southwell
Published by T C Southwell at Smashwords
Copyright © 2010 T C Southwell
Smashwords Edition, License Notes
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Table of Contents
This book is the first prequel of The Queen’s Blade series, so if you have not read the rest of the series and come to know and love the characters in it, this story will not be as enjoyable as it will be if you have. Also, it is the first part of a two-part story, so it is a good idea to ensure you can get the second part before you finish this one.
Jarren gazed down at the bloody infant the midwife had just handed him, his heart heavy. The tiny corpse barely filled his big, rough hands. The air was heavy with the scent of blood, and his wife's ashen, sweaty face told a grim story of struggle and pain. The midwife, Remal, glanced up from trying to staunch Misha's bleeding with boiled cloths.
“Bury him, Goodman Jarren,” she advised.
The goatherd turned to gaze out of the window, where a waning Death Moon's skull face glared down, an ill portent to any who were born under it. Perhaps it was better that the tiny boy his wife had just birthed in a river of blood had been born dead. A blizzard howled outside, rattled the wooden shutters and buried the frozen land under deep snow drifts. His son should not have been born for another three tendays, by which time spring should have arrived. The chill crept in through chinks in the windows and doors, cooling the air inside despite the fire that roared in the grate in the lounge.
A guttering oil lamp on the old coalwood bedside table lighted the cramped bedroom of his modest house. Clay plastered the dry stone walls and reed grass from the nearby lake thatched its roof. Faded, but clean homespun curtains covered the two narrow windows, a worn woollen rug softened the stone floor, and cheap ornaments and brick-a-brack stood on a puffwood chest of drawers in the corner
Jarren looked down at his stillborn son again. “Conash,” he whispered.
Remal grunted. “A fitting grave name.
He nodded. “Dead Son.”
Driven by an urge he did not understand, he shook the tiny infant, willing him to live. He did not want to lose his wife and his new son on the same night. If Misha died, at least his son must live. Jarren shook the boy again, and he writhed, then drew in a short gasp and let out a weak wail.
Remal glanced around. “You fool. He'll not survive more than a few time-glasses. He's too small and weak. He was born too soon.”
“He'll be dead soon enough.”
Jarren looked at his wife as Remal sat back, wiped her brow and left a smear of blood on it. “How is she?”
“I've stopped the bleeding. Now it's up to Tinsharon.”
Jarren approached the bed and knelt beside it to lay the tiny boy on his wife's breast. Conash breathed in weak gasps, and the midwife made a sound of disgust.
“You should wrap him and bury him now, Goodman Jarren. Spare yourself the grief of hoping that he'll survive. He won't.”
“And my wife?”
“She may live. She may even be able to bear more children. The childbed was blocking her womb. When the birthing started, it tore; that's why there was so much blood. As soon as he was born, the bleeding stopped. Misha almost died trying to bring him into this world alive.”
Remal snorted, shaking her head. “Don't change his name.”
Jarren stroked the damp black hair from Misha's pale brow, gazing at her gentle face. Conash's head bore a thin layer of inky hair, so he had inherited his mother's, and perhaps her grey eyes too, like Jarren's other children. Misha had yet to bear a child that looked like her husband. He hoped she would give him more children, but if she could not he would be content with three. Or two. The boy was limp, but his fragile chest rose in shallow breaths. Jarren fetched a warm, damp cloth to clean his tiny son. He resembled a doll with translucent skin, Jarren thought.
Remal dug in her bag and placed a bottle on the table. “Feed her this when she wakes. It's a tonic to strengthen her blood. And give her plenty of water. Don't let that boy feed, Jarren. Let him die. It'll be kinder for him.”
Jarren looked up and nodded. “Thank you, Midwife Remal.”
“I'll return in a few days to see Misha and collect my fee. I don't expect to see him here when I do.”
He looked down at his son. “I expect not. But until he dies we'll love him. He deserves it. He didn't ask to be brought into this world, or to leave it again so quickly.”
She shook her head. “You're a fool.”
After the door had slammed behind her, Jarren kissed his son's brow. “You're going to live, Conash.”
The infant whimpered, and Jarren placed him in the cradle, then set about removing the blood-soaked sheets.
Three days later, Jarren stirred a pot of ryelen when someone banged on the door. He glanced into the bedroom, where Misha rested. Although still pale and exhausted, she had regained a little strength and held the baby to her breast. The child had only started to suckle the day before, and she fed him as often as possible. She lowered her gaze to her son, her eyes filled with tenderness.
Jarren opened the door to admit Midwife Remal and the village seer, Pendrith, with a blast of cold air. Pendrith's dour manner and sour, pinched face, straggly white hair, hooked nose and rat-trap mouth gave him a bellicose air. Remal spotted the baby and snorted.
“You're both soft in the head. Misha, you weaken yourself to feed him. He won't live.”
Misha shook her head. “That's up to Tinsharon.”
“What about your other children?”
Misha glanced at four-year-old Rykar and little Alenstra, who, at two years old, was due to be weaned. “It does them no harm. It's time Alenstra was weaned, in any case. We love all our children.”
Remal sighed and turned to Pendrith. “That's the child I told you about.” She glanced at Misha. “I brought Pendrith to do a cleansing, but now he can do a reading too. Then you'll see.”
Jarren took the bubbling pot off the stove. “According to you, he should already be dead, but he's not.”
“Only because you've coddled him, Goodman Jarren. Why would you want to raise a sickly child, even if he survives?”
“Because he was born to us.”
Pendrith lighted incense sticks and waved them as he wandered around the house, mumbling. Rykar sat on the overstuffed couch with his little sister, who watched the seer with wide eyes, her thumb plugged into her mouth. Remal went into the bedroom to sit beside Misha, frowning at the baby.
“When did he st
“And how are you feeling?”
“A little stronger.” Misha looked down at her son. “I want him to live.”
“Let's see what Pendrith says.”
They waited for the seer to finish his cleansing, which entailed a great deal of incense smoke and mumbling. He entered the bedroom and sat on the chair that Jarren had placed beside the bed, gazing at the baby. The seer laid his hand on the infant's head, then snatched it away, rubbing it with a frown.
“What is it?” Jarren demanded.
“There's a lot of blood and death in this boy's future.”
“But he has a future?”
“Perhaps. The death may be his, although it's powerful.” Pendrith brushed his fingers over the child's hair again. “A lot of power around him, too.”
Jarren smiled. “He'll be a mighty warrior then, and fight in the war, most probably.”
Pendrith closed his eyes. “This is an ill-omened child, Goodman Jarren. All the portents of his birth are against him. I think Remal's right; you waste your time trying to keep him alive.”
“Well, that's up to us, isn't it?” Jarren gave Remal a silver coin. “Thank you for the reading, Seer Pendrith.”
Remal headed for the door, and Pendrith followed with a last glance at the baby. When it closed behind them, Jarren sat beside his wife and gazed at his youngest son, a gentle smile curving his lips.
“He's special, Misha. I feel it in my bones.”
She nodded. “I know. I feel it too.”
“They're wrong about him.
Conash dropped a mushroom into his basket and looked around for more. The Deep Forest's fecund humus yielded a wealth of plump pale mushrooms, and, since he had a knack for finding them, it was always his job to do so. Massive ironwood trees towered over him, and winding animal paths laced the carpet of leaves between their rough reddish trunks. The Deep Forest's silence enfolded him. Only an occasional creak of wood or faint trill of distant birdsong broke it. Sunlight filtered through the dense canopy of thin leaves to fleck the ground with spots of gold, and drifting spores swirled in the warm shafts. Clumps of bright green ferns broke the golden-brown monotony, and gloom swallowed up the distance in a brooding hush.
Becoming aware that the light was fading and it was time to go home, the boy set off, swinging the basket. He followed the trail that had led him here, or at least, he thought he did. When he came across a fallen tree he had not seen before, however, a chill went through him. He was sure he had followed this path, but the animal trails all looked similar, and now he did not know whether he was even heading in the right direction. If not, he was in trouble. Becoming lost in the Deep Forest was dangerous, possibly fatal. It was not a good place to be after dark, when predators roamed it. At just six years of age, he was too small to defend himself. The plump mushrooms had tempted him too deep.
Conash sat on the log and gazed around, wondering what he should do. His father had told him time and again to stay close to the edge of the wood, and he had disobeyed. The gloom grew deeper and more frightening by the minute, and Conash chewed his lip. The canopy prevented any glimpse of the sky, even if he knew how to navigate by the stars. With the dawn, he would have an idea of which direction to take, but now the sun was almost gone and the air chilly. If he was to survive, he must find a safe place to spend the night. Father had taught him much about forest lore, perhaps enough to see him through. His eyes stung, and he blinked, refusing to cry. He was not a baby.
Setting down the basket, he examined the log, which had a hollow under it that he could fit into if he cleared out the leaves. Conash dug them out while the light faded, glancing around anxiously as night sounds replaced the daytime birdcalls. An owl hooted and crickets chirred. A distant howl drifted through the trees, making him shiver. When he had made a hollow large enough, he crawled into it and drew his coat around himself. If wolves found him, he was done for. His acute hearing picked up the padding of soft paws on the forest litter, and he peered into the darkness, filled with trepidation.
The darkness was too profound for him to see anything, yet it seemed that something moved close by, black against the darkness. His shivering increased as the air grew colder, and the rotten log did nothing to keep him warm. Squeezing his eyes shut, he tried to ignore the frightening things that moved in the night. It did no good to dwell upon what might be out there or how little chance he had of survival. All he could do was try to stay warm, and pray. His mother had great faith in Tinsharon, and prayed to him daily. She even had a little shrine where she placed fresh flowers and bowls of spring water to honour him. Hot tears stung his eyes, and he shuddered as the distant howling grew nearer. Still, he sensed something close by, a presence that waited, alert and silent.
When Conash opened his eyes, soft dawn light slanted through the trees to dapple the leaves with gold. That he had fallen asleep amazed him, and that he was unharmed astounded him still more. Crawling out of the cramped hollow, he stretched and knuckled his eyes, yawning. His stomach rumbled and his mouth was dry. He wished he was at home, with the scent of bacon and frying eggs wafting through the house and his noisy siblings demanding breakfast.
Conash's nape hairs bristled, and he glanced around. A wood cat sat a short distance away, watching him with golden eyes, its tail twitching. The boy froze, meeting the cat's eyes, and it rose to walk a little closer, its gaze intent. Wood cats were not considered dangerous, being only the size of a big dog, perhaps reaching knee height to a man. They lived mostly on rabbits and rats, occasionally snakes, and rarely, lambs. To a six-year-old boy, however, especially a pint-sized one, the cat was a daunting size. Its ink-black coat blended into the shadows, and it moved with lithe grace, muscles rippling under its glossy coat.
It sat down again, and watched him. He sensed only a slight curiosity and expectancy from it. Slanted golden eyes dominated its elongated face, and broad, pointed ears swivelled atop it. Entranced, Conash crawled towards it, wondering how close he could get. On two prior occasions, he had glimpsed a wood cat in the forest, and he wondered if it was the same one. He had an odd feeling that this was the presence he had sensed nearby during the night. The cat bobbed its head, measuring the shortening distance between them, then turned and bounded away. Conash sat back and gazed after it, disappointed.
With a sigh, he rose and picked up the basket of mushrooms before setting off towards the sunrise. His mother had asked him to bring her a full basket, and handed him the wicker container with a gentle smile. As yet, he was not allowed to tend the goats, but his parents found other chores for him. Just two tendays ago, he had suffered another fever, and spent seven days in his bed, soaking the sheets with sweat. His memory of that time was hazy and confusing, filled with the scent of incense and his mother's soft hands holding cold cloths to his brow.
A moving shadow caught his eye, and he looked around. The wood cat stood on a fallen tree and gazed at him with deep fascination. Conash walked towards it, determined to either chase it away or befriend it. Once more it vanished into the gloom, and he returned to his chosen path, glancing back often. He had walked some distance when he sensed its presence behind him again and swung around.
The cat's head bobbed and its ears flicked back, then pricked again. The boy trotted towards it, and the cat bounded away, then paused to look back. It seemed to want him to follow it, and he did, the basket of mushrooms forgotten. The cat led him deeper into the woods, where even the faint birdsong did not reach him and the gloom grew more profound. Each time he lost sight of it and stopped, it reappeared ahead of him, luring him after it. Despite his hunger and thirst, and his frightening ordeal during the night, he followed. Occasionally it pounced on the leaves with a rustle, as if it wanted to play but could not allow him close enough.
Conash did not stop to consider that the beast was almost as big as him, or that he was far from the well-known trails at the forest's edge. The cat dar
About a time-glass later, Conash sat down on another log, exhausted. He was still weak from the fever, and a night in the cold and chasing the cat had drained him. Digging in his pocket, he pulled out the piece of dried meat his mother had put there before he had left the farm and chewed it. Its saltiness made him thirstier, but there was no water in the Deep Forest. He thought about the feverish time again, recalling a stranger at his bedside at some point, speaking strange, singsong words. His mother had wept and his father had held her close when someone's fingers had made a wet mark on Conash's brow.
The gloom increased as dusk approached, and the boy stood up again, forcing his tired legs to serve him. He had spent the entire day following the cat, and now there was no sign of it. The evening chill made him shiver, and he folded his arms. He had no tinderbox, and the nights were cold at the beginning of autumn. The thought that he might not find his way home weighed heavily upon him, and when he sank down again, his legs shaking with fatigue, hot tears filled his eyes. Bowing his head, he scrubbed the wetness away with a dirty hand and sniffled, then looked up.