I started blogging because I didn’t really have time to write fiction anymore and any writing was better than no writing. I’ve decided to go for something a little different this week and dabble back in fiction again with a short story.
I haven’t really written anything like this for over four years and feel very out of practise! It’s a little unpolished because the cubs didn’t allow me much chance to redraft but it was fun to write and the themes are in-keeping with my usual blog posts so I hope it’s not too weird to post it here.
Parts of the fire were swaying back and forth gently whilst other portions twirled and jumped. The colours ranged from the dark red/brown of the marks on his arms to the colour of the sky on the days he couldn’t look up. He watched the flames. The was a small avalanche and sparks erupted upwards for a moment before settling back down. This was his favourite time of day.
‘Osgar, are you watching the fire again?…Osgar…?’
Osgar. Osgar. Osgar. He liked the way she said his name. It was comforting and soft. It was the first memory he had.
He looked so angelic. He still looked like her little boy. The little boy she held in her arms when he was still covered in the mess of birth, the little boy she had fed at her breast, the little boy whose first word was ‘Mama’, though he hadn’t said it – or anything else – for well over a year now.
She looked back at her needlework and told herself it was enough to sit in the room with him. Everything was calm. Calm was good; better – at least – than the other option. She felt the swelling on her face and winced; it had gone down a little since yesterday but was still very tender.
The door opened, threatening the calm.
‘Elspeth, your mother and father are here.’
She glanced at the small figure entranced by the fire and rose quickly to head them off. Better they didn’t enter this room. But her husband put his hand up and that was when she noticed his gaze didn’t meet hers and his face was hard and emotionless.
She felt a small ball of dread stir at the base of her stomach but quietened it back down.
There was a draft. It unbalanced his body and felt all wrong.
‘What reason have my mother and father for their visit?’
He looked at her then and his eyes showed a mix of pity and defiance.
‘They have brought the Wise Woman,’ he replied.
The voices cut through his focus. He swayed slightly. Like the fire.
She almost laughed at that. The Wise Woman? Surely, they were not peasants who believed in such superstitions.
Her parents entered the room, followed by a woman with so many wrinkles Elspeth was sure if she touched the woman’s face it would crumble away completely.
‘Mother. Father. I am surprised to see you.’
‘Elspeth,’ her father made no move to greet her, ‘this is Kassandra, the Wise Woman.’
‘I know. I am feeling quite well.’
‘She is not here for you.’
The dread unfurled and rose up through stomach and into her chest.
‘Nobody else requires any medicine here. Wise Woman,’ Elspeth nodded to her, ‘I am sure you are much sought after. Your time is precious and I hope you may forgive me if it has been wasted.’
‘Elspeth,’ he mother’s first word since entering the room was a reprimand.
The voices. The noise. It pressed in upon him. All he wanted was to watch the colours of the fire but the noise made it impossible. He needed to push it back, he needed it all to go away. He pressed his nails into his arms.
‘You see,’ Elspeth’s father turned to Kassandra. ‘This is what he does.’
All eyes turned to Osgar and Elspeth knew what she would see before she turned. The rocking, the gouging of his own flesh. The dread had reach her throat and clawed its way up further making speech an effort.
‘He’s averse to all the noise, to us all talking.’ Elspeth knew she was pleading. ‘He was sitting nicely before you came in.’
The Wise Woman looked at her, ‘He dislikes the sound of human conversation?’
‘Of human…I don’t… I’m sorry, I don’t understand.’ Elspeth glanced at her husband in the hope he would offer some support or at least some answers but his gaze was fixed on Osgar.
‘You had a boy with beautiful big eyes and curly hair,’ Kassandra’s tone was somewhere between a question and a statement.
‘Have, ‘ Elspeth emphasised. ‘I have a boy with curly hair and big eyes.’
‘Beautiful children are more at risk,’ the Wise Woman said not without sympathy, ‘from the fey folk.’
‘The fey folk…fairies?’ Elspeth laughed but nobody else seemed amused.
This was his fire time. This was his fire time. Make it stop.
‘Elspeth, be serious,’ her father snapped. ‘You know this…’ he gestured towards Osgar and curled his lip, ‘…’child’ is not the same as the baby to whom you gave birth.’
The voices were getting louder. They pushed and pressed him. This was his fire time. He covered his ears to get away from noise but it wasn’t enough. It was still there: angry and painful. He started humming. A soft blanket over the harsh sound.
‘Look at him! What is he doing?’ Her father was shouting by now. ‘This is no ordinary child.’
‘What are you implying?’ Elspeth demanded.
It was the Wise Woman and not her father who replied, ‘Your mother and father tell me Osgar started talking? They said he was a normal, happy baby but he changed?’
‘Can we have this conversation somewhere else?’ Elspeth choked out.
‘Why? It is not as though he can understand us,’ her father retorted loudly. Osgar’s humming grew more insistent.
Kassandra took Elspeth’s hand, forcing her to tear her gaze away from the vulnerable, slight frame in front of the hearth. ‘That child is not your son.’ The Wise Woman’s voice was not without sympathy. ‘I understand it’s hard to accept but you know it in your heart. You saw the transformation for yourself. The child could talk, he laughed, he looked you in the eye and then, overnight… It is not your fault. There are creatures at work who we humans have all but forgotten how to ward off. The wretch by the fire is a changeling left here as a replacement for the babe taken by a malevolent faerie. Your parents asked me to-‘
‘Get out.’ Elspeth was quiet but there was no mistaking her tone. ‘Leave. Now.’
‘You dare speak to-‘
Her father’s face was closely resembled the deeper shades of the fire as she interrupted once again. This time shrieking the words.
It squeezed and twisted at him. Make it stop. Make it stop.
Even with the tension between the adults of the room everybody glanced towards Osgar as his hum turned to a low pitched moan.
As Elspeth turned back to make her demand again her mother surprised the room by dissolving into tears.
‘He is not right Elspeth. That sweet little boy I held as an infant…that’s not him. You are his mother; why can’t you see?’
The dread that had made its way up through her throat turned to bone aching weariness and it was all Elspeth could do to keep herself upright. She looked to her husband: her last hope at sanity.
‘John?’ she whispered.
‘Elspeth, look at your face,’ he implored. ‘Look at what he’s done to you.’
She felt the hot lump on her face again.
‘Get out,’ she repeated one last time. Looking at no-one. At nothing.
The Wise Woman nodded once and seemed to exert a power over the others triggering an exodus from the room.
Before closing the door behind her, Kassandra looked at Elspeth one last time and croaked, ‘Keep yourself safe. He will hurt you again.’
And Elspeth joined him.
The really smooth ones were the best. The smooth ones when they were still wet and glistening from the river.
He placed each pebble carefully, meticulously and admired his handiwork before ambling back to the river bank to collect more stones. Not the jagged ones, not the broken ones. They did not belong in his polished line.
It was tricky to get right down to the good pebbles, especially with the thin layer of snow over everything. There were large rocks he needed to climb down but Osgar had always liked climbing. He edged his way down carefully but confidently and was just sorting through another batch of stones – checking them for imperfections – when he heard it.
A voice. A voice calling his name.
The voices always did this. They intruded. They interrupted him when he was concentrating.
It was his mother. At least that was something.
If it was one of the maids they would beat him for wandering off. Though, the maids did not approach him much anymore.
He climbed back up the rocks with his loot just as his mother caught sight of him.
‘Osgar.’ Her voice shook with relief. ‘Thank goodness I’ve found you. You have to stop sneaking off like that. Anything could have happened to you. What are you doing?’
Elspeth looked at the line of pebbles on the snow covered grass and sighed.
‘I wish you would stop the counting and the stone trails. They use it as one more thing. They say the fairies like to count and they like order and…’
He looked so at peace placing each one in its spot. She reached out her hand without thinking.
He looked at her. He looked at her and seemed not to understand until she was about to retract hand and then he slowly placed one wet pebble in her upturned palm. It was small and light but Elspeth felt a great responsibility as she weighed it in her hand. She conscientiously laid it down next to the last on the ground and as she focused back on Osgar’s face her breath was knocked from her lungs. He smiled…at her.
Elspeth absorbed it, she memorised it. Every tiny detail needed to be preserved: his dimpled cheeks, his ruby red lips curled up and making his luminous eyes crease just slightly, his green tunic…
Something was wrong with the picture and it took a moment for Elspeth to realise what it was.
‘Osgar,’ she gasped. ‘You are soaking wet. It’s so cold out here and you…you need to come home at once.’
Everything changed at lightning speed. He had been placing his pebbles. His mother had helped him. Everything had been calm but now she tugged at him. She pulled him away from his stones. He still had some in his hand. He hadn’t added them to the line yet. They belonged with the others but she wasn’t giving him a chance to complete the line.
He tried to make her understand. He pulled her back to the line but she was making so much noise. He just needed a moment to show her and to finish but she was talking at him and grabbed his arm.
He pulled it back and covered his ears to stop the sound but as he did so he dropped his stones. He needed to finish the line and he had dropped the stones and she wouldn’t let him pick them back up and everything was too fast and the snow was muddy where they had scuffled and he needed to finish the line but she wouldn’t stop and now he couldn’t see his handful of stones so he started back to the river because it was so close and he only needed a little time but she grabbed at him again and they were at the rocks where he needed to climb down just to get some more pebbles just to stop this feeling but she grabbed at him again and as he twisted out of her grip she made a terrible noise and slipped on the icy rocks and she was gone and there was quiet again but he didn’t like it anymore and he filled it with his voice.
Elspeth opened her eyes and felt the dread back again. Dread and pain. Every inch of her hurt but the pain was secondary to a feeling she couldn’t quite place like from a half forgotten dream.
Her handmaiden entered the room and looked surprised to see her.
‘Oh, m’lady, you’re awake. Are you feeling better?’
Elspeth remembered the snow. She remembered lunging for Osgar, terrified he would fall.
‘Where is Osgar?’
‘Master John has taken him to see your mother and father. Oh, but I’m sure they’ll want to know you are awake.’
‘My parents are here?’ The feeling of dread muscled out some of the pain. Numbing it.
‘Yes. They have come with the Wise Woman. She healed my mam, you know, when-‘
Elspeth lurched to her feet.
‘Oh, no, m’lady! You’d better not. I can fetch Master John for you.’
Elspeth ignored the burning and staggered through the door, moving forward as fast as she could assemble her legs underneath her.
The stairs were tortuous but she forced herself downwards.
She didn’t know what the solution was for a changeling child but she could guess and the thought urged her on.
As she approached the courtyard she could hear voices.
They were all there. John, her parents, the Wise Woman. But not Osgar.
‘Elspeth.’ John sounded surprised to see her.
‘What are you doing?’ she demanded.
‘Elspeth, you should be resting.’
‘I cannot rest when I fear for my son. What are you doing? I told you not to let them,’ she indicated her parents and Kassandra, ‘come back here again.’
‘Elspeth, you’re hysterical,’ her father said calmly.
She ignored him and looked at her husband expectantly.
‘Elspeth, we found you covered in blood, unconscious. I thought you were dead. I have never been so terrified. Elspeth, he tried to kill you!’
‘Who tried to kill me?’ she asked, bewildered for a moment until realisation dawned. ‘Wait…you think…you think Osgar tried to kill me? That’s ridiculous.’
The Wise Woman spoke up: ‘I warned you. I was concerned something like this would happen.’
A figure appeared at the far end of the courtyard, a manservant.
‘I’ve got him,’ he said.
He pushed a small boy in front of him and the courtyard exploded into action. Elspeth tried to leap forward but John caught her and held her in place. At the same time Kassandra, the closest of the group to Osgar, moved at surprisingly speed and seized the child.
‘OSGAR!’ Elspeth screamed as she tried to twist free of her husband. But she was weakened and injured and he held her fast.
Osgar looked petrified but he focused on Elspeth and stretched his arms out to her.
Then, in a clear voice, he shouted.
John faltered and it was enough for Elspeth to squirm free just as Osgar bit down on Kassandra’s arm – hard – causing her to let go. Elspeth fell but Osgar hurtled into her and clung on with all his strength. Elspeth’s broken body protested the onslaught but she resolutely ignored it and clutched Osgar to her chest.
‘That thing is evil,’ the Wise Woman spat. ‘Look what it did to my arm.’
‘He said, ‘Mama’,’ John exclaimed.
‘The fairies are cunning and manipulative,’ Kassandra insisted.
‘If he was so cunning he would have spoken before now and stopped you from ever trying to take him,’ John pointed out.
‘Look, John-‘ Elspeth’s father started.
‘No. Elspeth was right. This is ridiculous. I can’t believe I…leave now.’ There was a pause as everyone digested the change in circumstances but Elspeth didn’t even look up. She squeezed Osgar tighter. ‘Go,’ John insisted. ‘Right now.’
His mother’s arms muffled all the noise. He could hear the comforting, predictable beat of her heart. He didn’t want to leave.