A Writer Reads
Playlist Navigation Bar
The Mandrake Child: 3. Chapter 2
- Chapter 2 -
Seren stifled a sigh when she opened the small satchel she had bought from the healer. So few herbs were there! Her coins had only sufficed for so much. She glanced to the room where her mother lay. It would have to do, Seren decided. There wasn't much use in wallowing in pointless regrets. Her father had once told her that the weeds that grew under the gallows were the most resistant; and so Seren willed herself to become, refusing to bend in the wind and to break under the frost.
She prepared the medicine, remembering the old woman's lengthy explanation and her precise gestures as she had dosed the herbs. Should she add too much, she would poison her mother's already weak body and spread death in her veins. But should she give in to the impulse to hold back her hand and diminish the dosage, the medicine would be ineffective. Then her money and her efforts would have been wasted. Not so long ago Seren would have shirked such a responsibility; but she was not the same, back then.
"Here, mother," she whispered, crouching by the bed with the cup in her hand.
"My sweet child…" Cillan rasped, reaching out with a trembling hand. Her eyes were glassy and unfocused, and her damp hair clung to her forehead. The air around her was acidic with sweat and sickness, smothering that familiar, motherly smell that Seren remembered. She flinched as her mother's hand brushed past the proffered cup and went to caress her cheek.
"My sweet daughter." Cillan's laugh merged into a coughing fit that wracked her frail body. "You are taking such good care of me."
She is delirious, murmured the newly born adult from Seren's mind, while the child inside screamed: Do you even see me, mother?
"You must drink this," she muttered, gently catching her mother's hand and curling it around the cup. "Here, I'll help."
Seren snaked an arm around her mother's shoulders and pulled her up, cautious not to move brusquely; the thin bones in her embrace felt as fragile as twigs. She raised the goblet to Cillan's parched lips, feeling the weight of her mother's grasp as she held on to it rather than held it.
Her mother's hand slipped from the handle of the cup, but instead of falling limply on the bed, Seren saw it rise once again towards her face. She watched Cillan's arm tremble with the effort, sinews bulging under a translucent skin; the fingers that touched her cheek were skeletal, and the caress light as a ghost's.
"I am sorry," Cillan whispered. "It should not have fallen under your responsibility, to take care of a sick old woman. You should be carefree and happy…" She tried to push a dark lock behind her daughter's ear, but her fingers got caught in the mass of hair like a moth in a web; suspended, helpless and weak. Seren hid her wince of pain as she untangled them. "You are still so young…"
"I will always take care of you, Mother."
Seren realised that her voice cruelly lacked the warmth such an affirmation should possess. Instead of reassurance, the words rang resigned and bitter. But Cillan smiled, bringing the echo of a beauty long devoured by illness to her features.
"Now that will not do." She curled her fingers around those of her daughter, squeezing them to catch Seren's attention. "This is no life for you," she said. "There is a destiny, somewhere out there, waiting to touch your hand and draw you into your path. You will be famous, my child – all will know your name." Her eyes widened as she fought against the coughing fit that scratched its way through her chest. "You will… know… great glory."
As her mother could hold her breath no longer, Seren held her through her fit, closing her eyes as a warm splatter covered her face. The air suddenly smelled like metal, and her world grew narrower still as more time escaped her grasp. Cradling her mother in her arms, she reached out to wipe away the crimson trickle in the corner of Cillan's parched lips.
"Yes, mother," she whispered through the tears that crawled into her eyes, burning as they went. If only you could be there to see it…
It was evening when her father returned, rainwater trickling down his old cloak in rivulets and dripping onto the floor. He glanced towards his bed and his gaze softened, his steps becoming surprisingly quiet for his bulk.
"She should sleep through the night," Seren whispered, remembering the words of the healer as she joined her father in their small kitchen.
He nodded, shrugging off the heavy cloak into her arms. She could not recall the first time he had done so – the gesture could seem ordinary, but Seren's hands knew the weight of another cloak. A dark, hooded shroud that turned her father into something different from the man he was; something either high above or well beneath, depending on where one stood.
One day, when she was much younger, he had returned from outside and she had padded to the door to welcome him. Many times she had seen her mother help him with his cloak, a smile on her face upon seeing her husband safe at home. That time she had reached out with her small arms to do the same, imitating the gesture, only to see him freeze in shock. Her mother had stopped just behind her, beaten by Seren to the door; frightened, resigned glances were exchanged. Then her father unclasped the shiny hooks that held the garment in place and, slowly and deliberately, placed the cloak into her arms.
"You are my daughter," he had said. "This is your heritage."
The young Seren had watched the black fabric in her arms with wide eyes, not yet comprehending its meaning and the status of its wearer. And she had never forgotten those words.
Heritage. Some called it taint, obscene cupidity that even death did not stop. But Seren knew that though the likes of her father were never liked and even less granted any gratefulness, they were a necessary darkness in people's otherwise clean lives. It was a controlled, domesticated evil. Seren was not proud of what they were – but she knew that someone had to do the job.
She went to hang the old cloak beside its more famous counterpart and returned to the kitchen. Her father sighed as he sank into a chair and ran his calloused hands through his greying hair. "Sit," he instructed.
Seren obeyed, watching him with concern.
"Been as far as Running," he said quietly, glancing towards the room to check that his voice had not awoken his wife. "No work there either."
Seren nodded grimly. She could easily guess all that her father had not said – the insults, the contemptuous looks, the whispers, the feeling of not belonging amongst those of one's kind and the slow sinking in of the belief that people were right. One could only return disheartened and disgusted from such a trip – either with oneself or with the others. Seren suspected that she was too young to have had to notice it, to have forged herself such a cynical view. But that was why she also knew what her father would say next.
"Winter's coming, and…" her father continued, dragging his feet about the subject.
"…You have to leave," she finished and, seeing his eyes widen, she gave a half-hearted shrug. "Esgaroth may be our last chance for some coin, this season. It is a big town, surely they have enough work for another… pair of hands."
He nodded. "I'm leaving in the morning. Journey's easier during the day." Another glance to the sickbed – this time in silent apology.
Seren understood. "She will ask where you are," she said quietly. "I will tell her you will return soon." Leaning forward she lay a hand on her father's much larger one. "Do not worry. I will take good care of her."
I will manage. They still had some money from the lute she had sold, although that money would undoubtedly be spent on the medicine. But Seren refused to bend under the blows life had dealt; not while she still had some strength in her hands. There were ways of gaining money she wished not think about, ways much more unspeakable than selling the last token of her mother's heirloom. But when it came down to surviving Seren knew that pride could not outweigh hunger or death – it was cold reason against her own comfort, a luxury one could not always afford. Besides, degradation was easier forgiven than leaving her mother to die.
"Take care of yourself," she whispered, "and come back to us. We will wait for your return."
Heavy pounding on the door tore Seren from her mother's side and she rushed to open, oblivious of the danger. Anything could be better than waking Cillan – her mother needed what blessed rest she had finally managed to find. She swung the door open, a low but sharp word on her lips for the untimely visitor who cared so little for their comfort, and found herself facing the beaten, bleeding face of the mayor Murdoch. Seren gaped at him: soaked up to the bone by the downpour, one eye swollen and closed, he looked anything but the over-proud, dignified man that liked to stride through the village like a Dwarfking in his mine. The flesh around his eye was a rich purple hue, and seemed to throb with blood right beneath the skin; his lower lip was split and dripping blood down the front of the remains of his tunic. His big nose was crooked, as though broken and then unskillfully reset.
And he was not alone. Three other men were standing beside him, all of them images of similar desolation and wearing tangles of scratches across the skin. They were carrying – or rather dragging – a fifth form that hung limply in their none too gentle grasp. The man's hair was long and blond, a shade of golden in the dim lights of the candle. It cascaded down from the back of his neck, hiding his features; but a soft, dripping sound told Seren that he, too, was bleeding.
"Move aside, lass," growled Murdoch, pushing past her as he strode into the house.
Seren narrowed her eyes, seething. "You are in my house!" she hissed, sparing a glance towards her mother's room, as she had each time she spoke since the beginning of Cillan's illness. "State your business, or get out!" Her arm trembled with contained indignation as she pointed to the door; but the men ignored her. Cold, calculating gazes roamed over the small room and looked right through her.
"Where's your cellar?" Murdoch barked and headed towards the rooms, his heavy, muddy boots pounding on the wooden floor.
Snarling, Seren threw herself in front of him, arms outstretched, nails digging into the doorframe. "That way!" she hissed, nodding towards a heavy door. "Go, go away! Leave us alone!" She blanched as her mother moaned behind her, awakening.
"Sen… Sennie, where are you?" came a dry, painful whisper, and Seren lunged to the bed.
"Mother…" she murmured, pushing damp locks from Cillan's sweaty forehead and leaning in so that her mother could not see the scary, angry men that had broken in. "All is well," she chanted, forcing a smile to her lips. "Are you thirsty? Close your eyes. I will bring you some water."
She heard the footsteps march through the kitchen and down the stone steps that led beneath their house, the unconscious man's feet scraping the floor in a plaintive whisper. The racket faded in the depths of the cellar, and Seren rushed to the kitchen for the pitcher and a goblet; her heartbeat frantic, she spared but a glance to the stairs that led into the darkness. Then, closing the door behind her, she kneeled beside the bed and helped her mother swallow the water, wiping her lips with the corner of a sheet. Murdoch and his men did not matter anymore. They could take whatever they wanted for all she cared; her world had shrunk to the halo of the candle beside the bed and the pale, sickly face it cast its light upon.
"All is well," she repeated, running her fingers through her mother's hair, mindful of the knots. "Sleep, now. I am by your side."
She thanked the stars that her mother's eyes had closed and she had drifted off again when the door creaked open, and one of the men pushed his head inside. In contrast to the still, peaceful atmosphere of the room, his mangled face was like a monster invading a peaceful slumber and turning it into a nightmare.
"Murdoch wants to speak with Hengist," he said, looking around the room suspiciously.
Seren shook her head. "He is away," she whispered, still stroking Cillan's hair as though it was a spell she was weaving, one that could bring strength to her mother's weary body. She felt apathetic, unnaturally calm, as though all her strength had been spent in luring her mother back into sleep.
The man looked disappointed. "He's gone," he called out towards the kitchen. Muffled voices responded, and he shrugged. Seren heard little before he pulled the door closed, but what she gathered forced her to rise; cautiously but swiftly she untangled her fingers from her mother's locks and shuffled to the door.
"My father is gone," she said quietly to the surprised men gathered in her kitchen as she closed the door in her back. The soft click rang with finality. "I am in his stead. Deal with me."
Playlist Navigation Bar