The summons had been short and urgent. Melinda rubbed sleep from her eyes as she dashed through the darkened halls toward Anya’s quarters. Whatever the Head Mistress wanted had to be critical to call for Melinda at this hour. Had Anya’s illness flared up again? In the last year, time had taken such a toll that the Head Mistress now looked every bit of her seventy-eight years. Melinda’s heart raced with her footfalls.
As she reached Anya’s quarters, the door stood ajar, and light spilled into the hall. With trepidation, she pushed open the door and stepped inside.
Silhouetted by candlelight, Anya sat behind a desk, face lined and weary, but eyes still clear and bright. She smiled. “Thank you for coming, my dear.”
Melinda brightened. The leader of the Druidic Order of Avalir, as well as her mentor and friend, appeared as expected, not as she feared. Yet, the older woman’s face betrayed a sense of tension.
Pausing to catch her breath, Melinda asked, “Are you okay? Is anything wrong?”
“I am fine. Please close the door.”
Melinda turned to do so and froze. In the shadows cast by the open door, and next to the wall stood a tall hooded figure, still as a statue. The subdued light made seeing details impossible, but the looming presence weighed upon her.
“You are in no danger,” Anya’s voice soothed.
Melinda finished pushing the door shut, then stepped back until she stood in front of the desk.
Without taking her eyes off the stranger, she asked, “Who is this, Head Mistress?”
“A visitor, and the reason I called you here.”
Her mind raced. A visitor, on the island, in the middle of the night? A shiver coursed down her back, and she pulled her robes closer. “What does this have to do with me?”
Anya leaned back in her seat, “I want you to hear what he has to say.”
Melinda tightened her grip on her robes. How could a man be here, they are not allowed on the island?
Anya nodded toward the shadowy figure and spoke in her most authoritarian manner, “Come now, and talk.”
The figure lunged forward–Melinda gasped and recoiled toward the desk. The man stopped and eased into the light. Candlelight fell upon his dark robes, which appeared weathered and worn, frayed at the edges, stained with small white circles of sea-salt. He loomed over them by at least a foot, his shoulders broad and menacing, features shrouded. In his arms lay a small bundle wrapped in a green blanket.
“I mean you no harm,” his rough delivery undermining his intent. “I am in need of a favor.”
Fear and uncertainty wrestled with her self-assurance. “I … I do not talk to ghosts–show your face,” she said.
He reached up and pulled the hood back. While doing this, the robe sleeve slipped away from his wrists, revealing tattoos of a red dragon, a sword in its arms, and in the claws of the hind legs, a flaming pentagram.
Melinda suppressed a scream as the knowledge of images surfaced–a Shatain–this man was a shadow warrior of the long dead High-King. How did such a creature of death and suffering surface in the heart of Avalir? Horror and revulsion turned her stomach. She looked up at his face, framed by a black beard, topped by wild strands of long dark hair. A large hooked nose sat between a pair of eyes, gray as the color of death.
Then the bundle in his arms moved, and a soft cry came from it–the pinched and helpless cry of an infant.
Melinda could not help focusing on the swaddled child, and the small pink hand rising, groping at the air. A sense of revulsion washed over her as the Shatain reached with a large, meaty hand and let the baby’s fingers close on his index finger. With a knitted brow he stared at the infant.
She turned to Anya, “Why is such a man here, in the middle of the night, and with a child?”
Anya fixed her with wizened eyes. “A challenge and an opportunity perhaps.” She commanded the man once again, “Explain yourself to my assistant as you did earlier to me.”
Face rigid, he fastened his eyes on Melinda. “I am Gall, and request sanctuary for this girl child because she will possess magical capabilities that will need your training and discipline.”
Melinda shook her head. “Many come to us to saying their children have such capabilities when they do not. How do we know she has such a gift?”
Anya interrupted, “The child’s aura is strong, stronger than any candidate we have ever had.”
Melinda let the meaning wash over her. Avalir existed to protect those blessed with the gift of magic and to give them training and discipline so they can live safely and as a blessing within the communities in which they ultimately serve. But even so. She spoke deliberately to Gall. “Our rules are very clear. We do not take in children younger than ten years of age–we are neither a nursery nor an orphanage. What about the parents? Such high capabilities usually come from those who have the same. Why can’t they raise the child?”
“The mother cannot be found, and the father is incapable of caring for her. If I could, I would leave her with others, but I cannot. Her capabilities will make her dangerous, to herself and others, and vulnerable to be exploited by those who will seek to benefit from them. She needs to be guided, or may fall into darkness.”
Another cry rose from the child, higher pitched and more demanding. Melinda winced as a dull ache coursed through her. Gall bounced the child a few times, but it let out another needy cry.
A sharp sense of yearning overcame Melinda. The child needed help. When she looked up, she noticed Gall staring at her. “I cannot take care of her,” he said.
Heart thumping loudly, she clenched her fists and turned to Anya. “Mistress, what should we do?”
Anya looked at her with a raised eyebrow. “Endowed with magical abilities or not, if no one else wants or cannot raise this child, then why should we? Most animals perish without their parents. Perhaps it is not meant to live. By taking her in, we would be going against nature.”
She stared hard at her mentor. How could you be so cold and calculating? This was clearly another side to Anya that she had never seen. Another plaintive wail echoed in the room. Melinda closed her eyes until the pain of the cry passed. “I disagree. Nature has ways of taking care of itself, some animals raise young that are not their own. For we are more than just animals. We have the ability to make choices. So how could we treat life and the opportunity to preserve it so cheaply? Who are we to decide who should die, just because we would find the task difficult? Our philosophy is to nurture and guide those that come to us. I say we take the child.” A high-pitched warbling cry rippled through the air. Melinda shot an arm out and pointed at Gall, “Because if one thing is clear, the child won’t survive in HIS care.”
Gall frowned. Anya stood. “Then, it is decided. We shall take the child, and Melinda shall raise it.”
Melinda whipped around, aghast. “But I know nothing about raising children.”
Anya smiled. “Then you will learn–as nature intended,” she said pointedly. The Head Mistress snapped fingers at Gall. “Bring the child.” He stepped forward and held forth the bundle.
Melinda took the baby and stared into its face. A pair of brown eyes gazed back at her from under a shock of black hair. A pink arm popped out, fingers wandering to its small round face. “Does she have a name?”
“Larah,” Gall said, looking at the child.
“Beautiful name for a beautiful child,” Melinda whispered, toying with the child’s small nose.
Anya inserted herself between Melinda and Gall, forcing him to step back. “Leave the way you came, and make sure you are not seen,” she commanded. He glared but slipped back into the shadows, and pulled the door open. It stayed ajar for a moment.
Melinda glanced up and saw candlelight reflecting in his eyes, but in the next instant, he disappeared, his exit marked by the door slipping shut.
Melinda stroked the child’s cheek, and it turned to mouth her finger tip. She glanced sidelong at Anya, “May I ask you a question?”
“You did not need me to make this decision, and yet you did. Why?”
“The child will be the responsibility of the next Head Mistress. I needed to be certain she would accept it.”
Melinda blinked as Anya’s words sank in. “You honor me with your faith and trust.”
“You have earned it, though, the honor part may be less than you think. The job comes with many burdens.”
“You said she was an opportunity. What did you mean by that?”
“We have a reasonable chance to shape this child to represent Avalir and its ideals. Left on their own, wildlings–if they survive–might be tempted to their abilities for dark purposes.” Melinda nodded at that thought. “Take the child back to your quarters. Have Acolytes bring goat’s milk for that empty tummy; otherwise, no one will be getting much sleep.” She sniffed the air. “And I do believe the young one has a present for you.”
Wrinkling her nose, Melinda asked, “Care to help?”
Anya waved the question away. “I’m quite too old for that.” She patted Melinda on the shoulder. “Enjoy the sleepless nights.”
A high-pitched meow, more like a chirp, sounded from the floor.
“Oh, there you are,” Anya said. A small ball of golden fur leaped onto her desk and pawed at her hand. The old woman obliged by stroking its fur.
“Seems Passion would like attention too,” Melinda said.
“Taking care of this one is about all I can do nowadays,” Anya said. As the kitten lolled on her desk, she cast a critical eye toward Melinda. “I don’t envy you having to care for an infant.”
“I’ll love her for both of us. Goodnight Mistress,” Melinda said with a smile. She turned and slipped through the doorway.
* * *
Anya watched her go. Should she have said something about the mother? She had kept that to herself, so an unbiased decision could be made. But oh, how her blood chilled to hear Faline’s name. What manner of beast would have had a child with that infamous wielder of the dark arts?
She felt a twinge of remorse at not being forthright with Melinda. Better the child is raised without the burden of being judged–or that she had considered sending the child away. Did the nagging voice of her conscience prompt her to call for Melinda? Passion sat on the desk and watched her intently with large amber eyes.
She had to be certain that Melinda would be willing to raise the child. Because if she wasn’t, then what? Irrelevant. She sighed, what happens, happens, and all for the best. As she looked out the window at the briny waters of the Gulf of Aruna, a sharp pain in her chest reminded her of her age. And what about the father? Should she have shared that, too? Again the pain throbbed in her chest, a curious numbness pushing down her arm. Yes, she should have shared that and the mother’s identity too. She would do so tomorrow. She started to reach for Passion, who mewed loudly.
Then pain gripped her chest like a vise, and she couldn’t breathe, “Oh no ….”