Speaker’s Child

February 4, 2015 - Short Story

Speaker’s Child
By
Kelly D. Tolman

Almost with awe, the young mother held her first child to her breast. The smile she wore was bright despite the sweat that clung to her forehead, and the exhaustion that wrapped her body in silence. In her arms the baby slumbered, and for one moment the darkness and chill of the night were swept out of the little one room cabin.
“How do you feel now?” asked Alaina, the young midwife with fiery hair and quick eyes that seemed to take in everything at once. “He put up quite a fight, didn’t he?”
“He’s so beautiful, I never imagined he would be so . . .” Gerna trailed off as the grandeur of the moment overcame her.
“The first one’s always the worst,” said Belna from where she sat across the room. Gerna’s old grandmother smiled also as she remembered the lost moments of her own children’s births. “After that, they all come a little easier. But then, each is a little different in their own way, and you certainly can never tell how they might turn out in the end.”
“Carn,” began Gerna on a wisp of thought, “will be a fine farmer like his father. Honorable and good to the land. He will always have water, and the High One will bless his heart with the courage to face the light and not burn. He will be a fine man.”
“Of course he will,” agreed Alaina heartily. “But that is a long way off still. For now, you should rest and recover your strength. Brand will return soon with a Speaker, and you will need to be strong for him then, and for the Speaker. Belna and I will see that all is in readiness.”
With those words, Alaina immediately began making her way around the room, reordering the already impeccable cabin. Brand would likely come with the dawn, and would expect everything already arranged for the Speaker. Even if it were no more than a tiny farm near a tiny village, appearance and custom were important for the city grown Speakers. So when Gerna finally dozed a little, Alaina carefully put little Carn in the cradle that Brand had so laboriously made months before, and lit the guardian candles on either side. The speaker would not be pleased if homage to the High One was not properly paid. As if the High One had ever blessed the village with more than famine. As if the Speakers did more than take their children, or steal their hard earned harvests. Alaina paused a moment as she realized her knuckles were turning white with the force she used to grip the dust cloth. She felt the lump in her throat, and the burn begin to build in her eyes.
As if reading her thoughts, Belna asked, “how long has it been now? Not yet a year?”
“A year next month, yes, since they carried off little Stev.” A tear trickled down Alaina’s fair chin, and she turned to face the mantle, letting the heat of the flame cover the rush of blood she felt in her face.
“I am sorry that you were reminded like this. They will not take Carn.” Belna trailed off. Gerna would be hurt too badly. She could not have that, not after all she had faced. No more, not after losing Father and Mother, and already a widow once.
“The gift,” murmured Alaina, interrupting Belna’s thoughts.
“What, child?”
“They said that he had the gift. Strong and clean. He would be strong as day, they said. The gift is rare, they said. The High One had blessed our house, they said. They said so much, and still I live with need, without my Stev. You will have others they said, but I do not want others. I want my boy, my darling. That is the blessing I wait for from the High One.”
“One day,” was all the old woman could respond, and Alaina slipped into her own mutterings. On the bed, Gerna slept quietly. Would she wake for the Speaker? Please, as the water runs, let her sleep. Then Belna too slept in the old chair her own hands had helped create years ago.
The sound of horses woke Alaina just as the first parts of sky were turning gray in the distance. She sat up slowly from the place she had taken next to Gerna, careful not to wake the young mother. She checked the infant in silence, and added a new log to the fire. The teapot was quickly set to heat, and a half a loaf of good brown bread and half a round cheese were set out to serve as breakfast. That will have to do, she thought, may the Speaker be pleased. No, not pleased, just content.
Brand held the door as the Speaker entered. A short man, shorter even than Alaina, with a close cut beard of graying black whiskers, and thick curls on a round head. The familiar black garb of the Speakers seemed to fit him, seemed appropriate even from the way he walked. His boots were silent on the wood floor, and his dark eyes shifted and danced to take in the entire room even as he smiled and greeted the woman beside the fire. “May the rain fall always on your house, mistress,” he said in a very formal voice, “and may the light shine only to guide your path.”
“And may the rain follow you, Speaker of the Prophet, and may the High One open your tongue to the prophecy,” Alaina nearly choked on the words even as they came, but somehow the years of form and custom overcame the hatred she had been breeding inside herself. “A meal is ready, Speaker, and every comfort should be satisfactory.”
“That is the woman,” more an observation than a question. He looked a moment at Gerna’s tired face and still form in the bed. “She has strength,” he said after a moment, “great strength. She will have born a strong child, and has the strength to bear many more. The High One has blessed this house much already.” The dark little man took his breakfast, and made pleasant company. Brand seemed ready to collapse after the long midnight journey, but made every effort to hide his exhaustion and be a pleasant host. None of them noticed Benla slumped in her chair near the bed.
“Shall we see the child?” suggested the Speaker as he finished the last of the loaf. “The sun rises already, and soon travel will be difficult. I must make an early start.” Without waiting for a response, he rose and moved to the cradle between the two long ceremonial candles. “Your devotion to the Goddess will not go unnoticed, ” he observed quietly. May the daylight burn you and your Goddess until they cannot find even your ashes, thought Alaina as a foul taste entered her mouth. “You were the mid-wife,” the Speaker said, casting a glance at the flame haired woman.
“Yes.” She kept her voice cool.
“Was it a normal birth?”
“Everything was normal. He came out strong and feisty.”
“How do you mean feisty?”
“She was in a great deal of pain. The labor took longer than expected, but he did not seem to suffer from the struggle. He did not whimper, just clung to his mother’s breast and eventually slept.”
“Was there anything else?”
“No.”
“Are you quite certain?” Alaina nodded finally, and he turned to Belna. “And her? Who is she?”
“That is my wife’s grandmother,” offered Brand helpfully.
“Wake her, I must know what she saw.”
Brand softly shook the old lady in an effort to wake her easily, but his blood froze when he felt the cold of her skin and saw that the gleam in her eye had gone.
“What’s the matter, Brand?” asked Alaina. “Is she ill, it was a difficult night for all of us.”
“Not ill, Alaina,” mumbled Brand. “She has returned to the shade of the Goddess.”
“The High One protect and comfort,” echoed the Speaker.
Alaina sat down at the table, her stomach turning. She felt dizzy, but even as the room swayed, she found herself and managed a little control. The Speaker seemed to ignore Brand and Alaina, and turned once more to the child. Kneeling beside the cradle, the Speaker raised his arms and began to pray, “High One, Goddess of the Shade, shed now the guidance of thy shadow on this thy Speaker’s tongue. What may become of this thy newest child?” Though Alaina neither saw nor felt anything, the Speaker seemed to tense where he knelt. His voice took on a monotone when he continued, but a hint of pain, and what seemed fear or anger edged his tone. “This child, blessed of the Goddess, has born within him the greatness of farmers, the strength of legends, and many precious gifts. Carn, Child of Shade, come to dwell beneath the sun filled with the gift of cool healing, long running, and the power of legends long dead. Thy heritage will not be thine to keep, but thine to give. Blessed child of the High One, thou shalt face the day, but do not flinch, the light does not burn the gifted.” Suddenly the Speaker sloped forward. He let out a long sigh, as if breathing for the first time, and clutched his chest. Alaina almost sprang from her chair. Brand’s face had turned to ash.
“Will he be taken, then?” asked the farmer.
“Yes,” choked the Speaker as his breath returned. “There is no other way to ensure his training and safety. I will take him with me.”
“What about his mother? What will we tell her?”
“She is strong, she will have others. The gifted are few, and never have I seen one with so much strength, so much power of the Goddess.”
“Never?” questioned Alaina, her face filled with skepticism and anger.
“There is a rumor that another with great strength was found near here a year or so ago, but I have never seen the child, and I can not say, but I doubt he could be stronger, or even the equal of this one. This house will be blessed for its sacrifice.”
Alaina felt sick. Her legs were weak and the burning in her cheeks told her that her rage was visible. With a harsh grunt she lifted herself and stormed out the door. She did not hear Brand call after her, or see the shock in the Speaker’s face.
Alaina stumbled blindly past the horses and began running toward the thin road that lead to Trickend. The sun had risen but the dawn was yet cool and grey. The hard, baked earth felt cool beneath her feet. Alaina did not stop running when she reached the road. The broken stones cut her feet in places, but her senses were numb to all but the image of the Speaker. That man, standing there with his easy smile and devotion to the invisible Goddess. His Prophet’s religion, his search for the faithful, all caused her stomach to turn. The sound of hooves on the road ahead brought her to a walk. Sweat had formed on her forehead, and the subtle sting in her feet quickly became a nagging throb. How long had she been running? She was standing near a cluster of rocks at the only place the road curved until it reached Trickend. Around the corner emerged a heavy set man in his middle years, dressed gaily in a bright red shirt, and driving a slow team of four horses. “Ho, Alaina,” he called when he saw her. Apparently he did not notice her feet or sweaty brow, for he continued in the same pleasant tone. “Coming from Brand’s? So, she finally had him? It is a boy isn’t it?”
“Yes, Master Tooksn, it is a strong baby boy. The Speaker is with them now.” Alaina’s tone was colder than she intended, and she could feel herself losing control again.
“Oh, perhaps then I should wait before I see the new parents.”
“That would be wisest,” agreed Alaina as a new thought entered her head. “I was just on my way to Trickend to get a few things for the child, but if you wouldn’t mind, perhaps you could go to the widow Harla, and tell her of the birth. The Speaker should be done before you return.”
“Harla you say? Will you need anything else?” Master Tooksn looked for a moment into his wagon, and said, “I was just bringing along the ceremonial gift of the silver knife and wisdom cakes. It wouldn’t do to have them in the sun, if you would take them ahead for me.”
Alaina accepted the small bundle of cakes, and the silver sheathed knife graciously, and turned back toward the homestead. The beating of hooves faded with the creak of the wagon, only to be replaced by the sound of another horse coming from the farm. Alaina composed herself quietly, and looked up to greet the Speaker. He held the child close to his breast, and rode only as quickly as care and good sense would allow.
“We meet again, miss,” said the Speaker when he saw her, “I see you have the gifts for the Goddess, I shall take them if you please.” When Alaina didn’t respond, the dark man dismounted carefully, his silver earrings reflecting quickly in the growing light. The baby whimpered softly as he balanced the bundle on the saddle. The cry was quiet, and not prolonged, but the sound reached Alaina, and as the memories of her own Stev’s quiet cries returned. The Speaker looked at her with a slight frown. Beads of sweat had begun to form on his forehead, and he seemed oddly uncomfortable in the dark clothes beneath the morning sun. Alaina barely noticed as the ceremonial knife slipped from the silver sheath, and she didn’t see the paleness come over the Speaker’s face, or hear his final gasps.
Alaina left the child with Brand, whom she found sobbing quietly in a corner of the tiny cabin. His eyes brightened briefly at the sight of his son, but became once more grave as the midwife left, and he put the boy on his mother’s breast.
THE END

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