The Critter

Vol. 4: Inside

Darkening seasons and chillier nights encourage a turn inward and a reflection upon insulation, self-preservation, and isolation.

 
 

What is it to be within?

Check out all our work below.

 
 
  • Erin Snedeker

The Nightingale: Chapter 1

This is the first chapter of my fantasy novel currently in progress.

The Nightingale

Chapter 1- Aris 1270


The streets of Ailendar were full of thugs, peasants, pickpockets, and urchins. This far from the palace, there was no facade of wealth. No pretense of prosperity. The buildings, though never extravagant, had long since lost their dignity, and sat heavy on their foundations, sagging with the years of hardship that they’d housed. People milled about the streets as the sun sank below the horizon of the Kishnar Sea, and night engulfed the city. They were dirty, hungry, tired, and ill. The plague that had swept through this part of the city had been merciless, and the stench of death lay heavy on the air.


A man’s fine leather boot plunged into a puddle, spattering his cloak and that of the lady’s next to him in a thick smear of mud and grime.


“By the gods,” the man cursed. He was a tall man, with a handsome face and well to-do figure. He brushed his blond hair from his eyes and examined his boot and the hem of his cloak. “Sorry, dear.”


“Let’s keep moving, Aris,” the woman said. She adjusted the bundle in her arms and glanced around nervously. “I don’t want to be out after dark.”


“She must be getting heavy,” the man said. “Here.” He took the bundle from the woman and folded the cloth down to reveal a small child’s sleeping face. Her lips were puckered and red, and her round cheeks held the pink flush of a fever. He brushed a strand of damp blond hair away from her face. “We aren’t far now.”


The woman nodded, concern spreading over her face as she gazed down at the little girl.

“If this doesn’t work…” she began.


“It will work,” the man said. He adjusted his little girl so that she lay in the crook of one arm. He reached over and grasped the woman’s hand. “Trinaena, I promise, I won’t let any harm come to our daughter.”


Trinaena closed her eyes and nodded. She brought his hand up to her lips and kissed it. It was something that she did when she was nervous, Aris knew. And he knew better than to say anything else in this moment. She opened her eyes and became rigid. “Aris,” she said urgently.


Aris whirled around.


“Please,” a woman croaked. The woman had a haggard, gaunt face, and strings of oily gray hair peeked out from beneath her headscarf. Sores ringed her lips and she stared that them with wide, bloodshot eyes. She stumbled toward them and reached out her hand, her fingertips blackened by the plague. “Please help me.” The woman took another few steps toward them.


Aris clutched their daughter tighter and stepped between the woman and Trinaeana. “We cannot help you,” he said firmly. “Be on your way and leave us in peace.”


“Please,” the woman bleated. “Please!” She hurtled toward them with a speed that Aris didn’t anticipate. Before they could react, the woman descended on the couple. She clawed at their expensive clothes, fingers like talons as she shrieked for help.

The commotion woke the child, who added a squalling cry to the din.


“Help me!” the woman screamed, sending flecks of putrid spit over Aris’s face and flashing her rotten teeth at him. He tried to step back, but the woman clung to him with a startlingly strong grip. Trinaena cried softly as she tried to pry her baby from her husband’s grip.


Aris kicked the woman away and let Trinaena take their daughter from his arms. His heart thundered in his ears and his whole body shook. He wanted to scream at the woman, to kill her for endangering his wife and daughter.


The woman lay crumpled on the street, sobbing softly and rocking forward and backward. Snot dripped from her nose and tears from her chin.


Aris gripped his hands into fists. “I cannot help you,” he said softly. “No one can help you now. I will pray to the gods that you somehow survive this.”


The woman cried harder and buried her face in her blackened hands.


Aris turned to Trinaena. Her brown hair had come free of her headscarf and curled around her face. Her eyes were bright with adrenaline. She’d managed to calm their daughter, who now took in the world with round fever-glazed green eyes.


Aris tried to imagine how she saw the streets, the people curled against the buildings as they waited for death to take them. He would not let this be his daughter’s fate.


He grasped Trinaena’s hand. “It’s not far, now.”


Five minutes later he banged on the door of an old clay building. The wood of the door groaned under his fist.


A woman answered it, her eyes wide and her face pinched with worry. Her clothes were even finer than those of the young couple and gold bracelets glinted from her wrist.

Aris relaxed. “Phillipa, you came.”


“Of course, I did,” said the woman, who greatly resembled Aris. She had the same blond hair and handsome features, straight nose, dark eyes, though her lips were thinner, and lines had appeared around her eyes and mouth. “Come in, quickly.”


They entered the building at once, and were hit with a pungent aroma of spices, onions, and medicines. Phillipa pressed a gleaming white handkerchief to her nose. “It’s this way.”

They wound through the dark, twisting hallways until they came to the back of the hut, where the hallway opened into a kitchen.


An old stooped woman shuffled to and fro over the cluttered tables as she selected plants and potions to add to a simmering pot, which sat over a fire. The room was stiflingly hot, only illuminated by the flickering fire and a few burnt-down candles. Smoke stained the fireplace and the surrounding wall.


“Come in,” the woman croaked. “Sit, sit.” The woman shuffled to the north wall and brushed off a few moldy cushions. A rat scampered across the floor and disappeared with a flick of its naked tail.


Trinaena gasped and stood closer to Aris.


Phillipa turned so that she faced Aris with her back to the old woman. “Brother,” she pleaded. She pressed a hand to his shoulder. “Don’t do this. I have a bad feeling in my stomach that I cannot ease. The gods have abandoned this woman. To use her medicines would go against them.”


Aris stared at his sister. “I cannot sit and watch my daughter die. The palace healers won’t even tend to her anymore. Sick with a fever, afraid she has the plague. She will die if we do nothing.” He swallowed the lump in his throat which threatened to strangle him. It had to work. He couldn’t live if it didn’t.


Phillipa dropped her hand and nodded. Aris pushed past her and Trinaena followed. They sat on the cushions.


The old woman shuffled over and lowered herself to one of the cushions with a grunt.


“This young woman here tells me that your daughter is ill,” she said. Her voice had a strange quality to it, as if her throat were full of gravel. She peered at them through the darkness with glinting blue eyes.


Trinaena nodded. “Our little girl came down with a fever five days ago,” she said. “No other healer will help her. They are all afraid of the plague that infests the city.”


The old woman tutted and held out her arms. “May I?”


Trinaena hesitated and glanced uncertainly at Aris. He nodded, and she handed the baby over to the old woman. The baby began to fuss, and the old woman cooed softly.


“Her name?” the old woman asked.


“Cassandra,” Aris said. “Cassandra Ilania Bryn.”


The old woman smoothed the girl’s hair. “And you brought payment with you?”


Aris glanced at Phillipa, who nodded and produced two heavy silk coin purses. “One

thousand gold granals,” she said and laid them at the woman’s feet.


The woman pulled the coins toward her and then placed a hand on Cassandra’s forehead. She closed her eyes and muttered under her breath. Trinaena and Phillipa exchanged worried looks, but Aris kept his eyes fixed on his daughter. With her eyes still closed, the old woman frowned and shook her grizzled head. The room grew warmer and sweat beaded on foreheads and slinked down spines. The heat was oppressive, pushing them into their cushions and making it hard to draw in air. Phillipa began to rise, but Aris caught her hand and pulled her back down. His eyes were molten with anger that his sister almost broke the woman’s incantation. The fire flared and snapped.


Suddenly, the woman opened her eyes with a gasp. She stared with wide eyes at the child in her arms, who had remarkably slept through the whole endeavor. The heat subsided and the pressure eased. Aris wiped droplets of sweat from his forehead.


“This child has the mark of the gods on her,” the old woman whispered.


Phillipa visibly relaxed, sagging into the cushion with relief. “She will be okay,” she said.


Trinaena stifled a sob of relief.


Aris continued to stare at the old woman.


“She’ll live,” the old woman said. “But those with the mark of the gods often have long suffering lives. I pray that what I have seen will not come to pass.”


“She’ll survive this fever?” Aris asked urgently.


“Yes, young man, she will,” the old woman said. “Her body does not have the plague. Not yet.”


“What have you seen?” Trinaena asked.


The old woman trembled as she looked at the sleeping girl. “Suffering and pain is what the future holds for this child. But she has the chance to change the world forever.” The old woman looked Trinaena in the eye and Trinaena pressed into her husband in fright.


“You come from a long line of powerful Mages and Prisms, and your daughter carries the traits. She could bring about prosperity or total destruction. It is hard to say which course Fate will take. Magic runs in those tiny veins.” The old woman smoothed the girl’s blonde curls from her face.


“How can we protect her?” Aris said. His face was grim, his mouth set in a thin line.


The old woman shook her head. “You will be unable to. Neither one of you will see her twelfth birthday.” She turned to Phillipa with a sneer. “You will survive but will cast your niece out into the streets. You will deny your own blood.”


Phillipa’s mouth worked soundlessly as her face turned pink with anger. “This is absurd. I would never abandon my family.” She turned to Aris. “Brother, you know that I would never do that. I love Cassandra as if she were my own child.” Aris remained silent; an uncertain expression fitted to his face. Phillipa turned back to the old woman. “How do we know that anything you say is true? Magic has disappeared from the world, if it ever existed at all. Where do you get your supposed power? Or are you nothing more than a charlatan, preying on our desperate situation?”


The old woman threw her head back and cackled, showing the group a mouth full of black teeth. “You think to cut me with your words? You may have health and fortune, but you are a poor, small woman. Magic still exists. It is locked away, somewhere, but it will not remain trapped forever. Slowly, slowly, I discovered my gift. I worked tirelessly to cultivate it. To make it grow. Not many know the secrets I’ve uncovered.”


“Why not live in riches, then,” Phillipa asked, “if you have this rare power.”


The old woman shook her head. “That is not how it works,” she said. “I cannot generate wealth, a palace, or fine clothes. And if the wrong people found out about my power, I’d be hanged as an enemy of the gods.” She glared at Phillipa. “Isn’t that right? The gods have abandoned me, have they?”


Phillipa lowered her gaze.


“You said that we wouldn’t live to see Cassandra’s tenth birthday,” Aris said. “Why do you say such things?”


“I’ve seen it,” the old woman insisted. “I’ve seen it as clearly as I see the past lines that have brought you to this moment.” She regarded Trinaeana with a shrewd eye. When she spoke, it was directed at her. “You and your husband come from long lines of Mages and Sorcerers, but your blood… Your blood is more valuable than you can possibly know.”


Trinaena blushed and shook her head. “In that you are mistaken. My family have been naught but farmers for a thousand years.”


The old woman shook her head and remained silent. Cassandra stirred and coughed, the sound rattling and wet.


Aris’s face softened. “How can we help our little girl?”


The old woman handed their daughter to Trinaena and shuffled to one of the cluttered tables. She muttered to herself as she picked through the items and then tossed a small sack to Aris.


“Grind up these leaves to make a paste,” the old woman said. “She has an infection of the lung. Rub the paste on her chest and back twice a day until she is better. And here…” the woman handed over a small glass pot full of dried leaves. “Put a few of these in a pot of water over the fire. Let her breathe in the vapor. It will help ease her cough.”


Aris stood and helped Trinaena. “Thank you.”


The old woman nodded. She looked like she wanted to say something else, but she shook her head. “It’s not every day an old crone like me gets to see someone like her.”

She gestured to the sleeping child with a gnarled hand. “She is special. Guard her well.”


Phillipa’s carriage was waiting for them outside when they left the old woman’s cottage. The carriage driver, a scowling middle-aged man with a week’s growth of beard shadowing his chin, eyed the dark corners of the street as if he were waiting for thieves to suddenly appear.


Aris ushered Trinaena and Cassandra inside. Phillipa grabbed Aris’s arm and pulled him around. He met her with a grim expression.


“Aris,” she pleaded. “You must know that the old woman must be mad. I would never do anything to harm Cassandra.”


“Sister, stop,” he said firmly. “I don’t know what to believe. But I know that you have been against my marriage to Trinaena from the beginning. How do I know that when I am gone, you will not turn against my child?”


“I won’t,” Phillipa insisted. Her usual rigid manner began to crumble, and her eyes shined. “Please, believe me.”


“I want to,” Aris said quietly. He wished that he could dismiss the old woman’s words, but deep in his gut, he knew that what she had said was possible. And he was not willing to take a risk when it came to his daughter. “Thank you for bringing the payment. I will pay you back somehow.”


Phillipa pressed her lips together. “You don’t have to.”


“I will,” Aris promised.

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