* * *
She raised her head,
leaves pasted to her tear-damp cheeks, and realized that she had wept herself
to sleep. She was laying under the tree, a few stray nuts scattered on the ground. It was dawn, the rising sun
peeping between the changing leaves. The night's chill was still in the air and she shivered, rubbing her arms
and legs briskly.
As she stood, a sudden cramp seized her and made her gasp. She sank to her knees, praying that it
was just an upset stomach. The cramp passed, drawing a sigh of relief from her. She stood again and
collected the rest of the nuts, not hungry but knowing she might need them later. She bundled them in her
scarf, the brightest thing in the woods, red and gold, fringed, the scarf of a gypsy dancer. So many times she
had spun barefoot in the grass, hair and skirt swirling, that scarf held in her hands, first before her face in
the Rakvian style, then over her head, then whipping like a bird's wing as the music spiraled to a finish.
Now it was just a piece of gaily-patterned cloth to carry things in.
She headed north and west, not going anywhere in particular, just trying to get as far from the
devastated wreckage of the camp as she could. She thought of trying to find the town with the crumbling
tower, remembering that it lay at the middle of the wood alongside a narrow river, but doubted she would be
welcome there. It was the harvest time, and there had to be other gypsy bands traveling through the
farmlands. She would find one of them, and they would take her in.
The cramp came again a few hours later, and this time she had no doubts. It was not her dinner. It
was her son. The baby was readying himself to be born, and if he was anything like his father, he would be
impatient about it. She had a matter of hours before the birth.
Stumbling onward, clutching her belly and silently begging the baby to give her just a little more
time, she barely noticed when she left the woods and entered the fields. She only realized it when pushing
through the tall grass became too difficult, and she started walking along the road that cut through the
golden valley. She saw a smaller clump of woods in the distance, and near it a few buildings. A town, a tiny
one, but maybe there would be someone there who could help her.
* * *
The man was so intent
on his work that he didn't see her until she was only a few yards away.
She tried to call out, to warn him and ask for help, but the cramps were coming so suddenly now
that it was all she could do to gasp for breath.
"Dorian!" he exclaimed, catching sight of her. He was about twenty, blond and bronzed, with an
honest, open, townie face and big, hard-working hands.
Thalia tried to say something, but at that moment, her water broke, soaking her skirt. She doubled
over, started to fall, and then the townie man was there, holding her up.
"John! Andrew! David! Help me!" he yelled.
"What's the matter?" another man called. He ran toward them, then stopped, gaping. "What under
the sun ...?"
"She's having a baby!" the first townie said.
Two others ran up. All were young and healthy, broad-shouldered plowmen that her father would
have warned her against. But she was in no condition to be choosy. The baby was coming, and no force on
earth could stop that fact of nature.
"She's a gypsy," one of them said. He had brown hair that was already thinning, a spotted scalp that
had burned and peeled and burned again, and beady brown eyes that regarded Thalia as if she were lower
than a beetle.
"I can see that, Andrew," the first townie said, and though she was in pain, she suddenly and
vividly sensed that the one called Andrew was strongly disliked not just by her helper but by the two other
men who stood around her.
"I'll get the Dorus," one volunteered. He was the youngest, nineteen at the oldest, with a shock of
bright red hair and freckles spattered across his nose.
"No good," the last one said. "Have you forgotten? He's in Briarglen."
"We have to do something!" the one that was holding Thalia said urgently. She clung to his arm,
biting her lip as the pains grew deeper and stronger.
"Calm down, Charles," the last one commanded. "We'll take her to the village."
"We will not," Andrew said. "She's a disgusting gypsy!"
"She's having a baby!" Charles yelled. "If we leave her here, they'll both die!"
"Two less damned gypsies in the world!"
"Stop it!" the last one demanded. He stepped to Thalia's other side and slung her arm over his
shoulders. "Gods, she's just skin and bones."
"Where do you think she came from?" the redhead asked.
"It doesn't matter," Andrew said, scowling. "Leave her be, and we'll all forget we ever saw her."
"Calaan take your bones, Edgebrook, we can't leave her to die!" Charles swore.
"Come on, miss," the last one said. "Lean on me. We'll get you someplace where you can lie
"You, too, Larksley?" Andrew snarled. "You'll never be hayward if I have anything to say about it!
Would you risk your farm over a dirty gypsy slut?"
A sudden vision assaulted Thalia. She saw this man, the one called Larksley, standing in a small
house as the hot summer sun beat down, his face tight with grief as a kindly-looking man in the tunic of a
priest put a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry, David," the priest said in the echoes of Thalia's mind. "It was
too fast. She must have eaten four or five of them before realizing they were poisonous. At least we saved
the child. It's a girl, small, but healthy."
"How can you even say that to him?" Charles said. "You know what happened to Anne. By the
gods, if I'd lost Margaret ... if you'd lost Katie ... how can you be such a toad?"
"John," David said coldly, "if he says anything else, either punch him or hold her so I can."
Andrew opened his mouth, then closed it again.
The two men half-carried Thalia toward the village. It was tiny, a handful of buildings gathered
around a large bridge that looked strangely out of place. It was made of stone, a construction that looked as
if it was made to stand the test of time. Several people came out to see what the commotion was, as the one
called John ran ahead shouting for a midwife. Soon the entire town, or so it seemed to Thalia's pain-fogged
mind, had turned out to gawk at her.
A new cramp crushed her, and she felt hot fluid gush down her legs. It was too thick to be water.
She was bleeding, her weakened body unable to handle the rigors of her labor. Her knees buckled and she
would have fallen, but Charles and David lifted her between them.
"Over here," a woman's voice called.
"It's Marion Hillsby," David said. "She's delivered half the Hillsby kids. She's one of the best
midwives in the village."
"It'll be all right," Charles whispered reassuringly to Thalia. "You're going to be all right."
She wanted to correct him, but hadn't the strength. She knew, needing no foresight to tell her, that
she was not going to make it. Only the thought of her son, fixed firmly in her mind, gave her the strength to
They carried her toward the woman. Thalia had a brief impression of a middle-aged woman with
soft brown hair and gentle eyes. She felt herself being lifted, turned, and then she no longer saw her
surroundings but felt instead as if she was on a raft, floating, turning, bobbing along a rough river. She
convulsed, but there was nothing for her stomach to throw up. She felt hands, settling her onto a hard
surface, holding her, and pain like a giant's fist closing around her, and a sweet little girl's voice like the
whisper of a songbird.
"Mama, can I help?"
"Stand back, Julia," the midwife said. "Here, hold this," and the scarf of nuts was taken from
"Charles? What's going on?" a woman asked.
"Margaret! You should be resting!"
"I'm fine, and so is our little Jean. What happened?"
"We found her in the fields. Andrew wanted to leave her to die, but David and I brought her back."
"She's so thin! Where are the rest of her people?"
Voices all around her.
"-- like she's half-dead --"
"-- could be a trick --"
" -- poor thing --"
" -- probably both die --"
" -- won't make it --"
"Hush, all of you! Margaret, hold her head."
"Here, Charles." Soft coo of a baby.
Eyes open. A woman standing by her, pretty, blond, a townie woman. As she touched Thalia,
Thalia knew that she just had a baby of her own, only a few days before. They shared that sudden, special
understanding that only new mothers can. But this woman, Margaret, already had three other children, and
she would live to see many grandchildren. Thalia would count herself fortunate if she lived to see her only
A child with long soft brown hair stood at the bedside, holding Thalia's bright scarf. Their eyes
met, gypsy dark to townie grey, and Thalia was jolted again. The child had power, not the Sight but other
gifts, sorcery, old knowledge, memory of another time. Penelope. The midwife called her Julia but she was
once known as Penelope, and her pale eyes showed that she remembered. There was light behind her, the
light like a full moon though the sun was bright, a disk of perfect silver. Sister. Moonsister. Penelope. She
Thalia reached for the girl, her hand shaking. She screamed as the giant crushed her again, but her
scream was without sound.
"Is she all right?" Charles asked, tense, holding his own child tightly.
"She's lost too much blood," the midwife said. "Too thin, too weak."
"You mean she's dying," David Larksley said, his fists clenched.
"Come on." A man who strongly resembled him took him by the arm and led him from the room.
People ran all over, bringing pans of water, cloths, other things too numerous to see. Through all
of it, only the girl stayed calm, and her impassive pale eyes calmed Thalia. Looking at the child, she
suddenly saw with her inner eyes, her Sight, someone waiting behind her. A man, tall like Taleris, wrapped
all in shadow.
She knew him. At once, her fear and pain vanished. Her trembling hand, which had been reaching
for the girl, reached instead for the black hand that beckoned her. But just as his fingers were about to close
over hers, she drew her hand back.
"I'm not ready to go yet," she said, though she knew that only the little girl heard her. "I have to
have my baby."
The dark figure nodded. Thalia grabbed the supportive hands of the woman called Margaret and
pushed, pushed until she felt her bones would split, and felt a surge of motion as the baby emerged. The
midwife picked him up, red and wrinkled and already squalling angrily. She wrapped him and handed him
to Margaret, then turned back to Thalia.
"It's a boy," she said, but her face lacked the happiness that usually accompanied such an
announcement. She pressed folded pads of cloth against Thalia, trying to stop her bleeding. It was hopeless.
Thalia knew it.
Fading, the room receding from her until it seemed as if she saw it very far away, she heard
someone ask her what she wanted to name him. She tried to speak, but even if she had been able to, she
wouldn't have known what to say. In all their planning, she and Taleris had not chosen a name for their
child. She did not want to die never knowing the name of her son.
"Call him Richard," the little girl suggested, but there was power behind her voice.
Thalia nodded. It was not a gypsy name, but it seemed somehow right. Then she reached once
more for the shadow. "I'm ready now," she whispered. "Take me to Taleris."
The cloaked figure slowly, sadly shook his head, and as his hand closed over hers, she knew. Like
a flash of lightning on a clear day, she knew and her knowledge gave her the strength to cry out in joy. "He's
"He's a fine, healthy little boy," the midwife said.
She had misunderstood, but Thalia could not correct her, for she was gone. They were all gone,
melting into a darkness so perfect that midnight was only an echo. The last ones to vanish were the little
girl, with her moon-pale eyes, and the black-haired infant in Margaret's arms.
* * *