I warned them.
I told them, on the night of the birth, what would happen if they killed the child’s parents.
They should have listened to me. People have gotten out of the habit, these days, of respecting their elders. I see more than they expect, given my failing vision. I hear more than they anticipate, though I may not catch every word in the conversation. After I passed my title on to my son the village began to discount my input. Had I known what a fool he would become, and that he would take them with him, I would have stayed Village Head until my dying day.
This has happened once before, in this village, but I’m the only one old enough to remember. I was a child myself when that child was born. The mother was horrified when that awful thing came out of her. Afterward, the father disappeared. He was one of them all along. That’s why accepting strangers is so dangerous. You can never know for sure if they’re really human. It’s why we have strict rules requiring visitors to provide their identification, and why we never accept lone travelers. It’s why the Laws are drilled into children from birth. We must know how to use them to our advantage. We have to keep ourselves safe.
Even with our precautions, one of them found a way to Elila. The rough part is that we don’t know who it was, and because those idiots killed her and Hevric, we may never know. The only thing we can know without a doubt is that it wasn’t either of the parents. It would take far more than a village to bring one of them down. I doubt anything could kill them.
I suspect that Elila was tricked. She never seemed like the type to go whoring about behind Hevric’s back, though I’ve lived long enough to realize that you can never really know another person. They’d been married just over two years when the child was born. Everyone in the village knew they were trying to get pregnant. If Elila’s frequent visits to Kana didn’t clue a body in, well, it was an open secret that Elila and Hevric would always spend a little bit of personal time together right out in the fields when she brought him his lunch.
I’ve given my version of events at the Village Meet. I was ignored. I think that one of them took Hevric’s face, walked right into our fields, and met Elila there. She didn’t take the time to ask a safety question, because she had grown too comfortable with their routine. We know it is a child of the Watcher, whose eyes are upon us even when we think we are alone. The Watcher saw Elila and Hevric in the fields, and he took his chance. He took Elila.
Did they talk later about the incident? Did Hevric ask Elila where she was that day with his lunch? Did she begin to wonder, that day, if she had done something horribly wrong?
I spoke to Kana when these questions came upon me, and what she said only made my hold on my version of the events even tighter.
“Did you know, Kana?” I asked. I knew her answer before she even spoke, by the way she turned her body, by the quick snap of her head as she turned her focus back to the herbs she was preparing.
“Did I know what?” She ground the herbs with a renewed fervor. I could see the tension in her hands as she worked. She was getting older, now, too. It was hard for me to watch her age. I knew her when she was a little girl. I knew her well enough to know she understood exactly what I was asking, so I said nothing. Kana sighed. “Leave us,” she said, patting her apprentice on her shoulder. She turned to me once the girl had left. “Yes. Well, I didn’t know for sure. I suspected. But what was I supposed to do? The Laws—”
“How did you figure it out?” I asked. I had some suspicions, but Kana’s answer caught me off guard.
“Elila came to me about three months ago asking for some cielmoss.” Kana cast her eyes downward. Cielmoss was used by women who were with child and wanted not to be. Odd, for a woman who had been trying so desperately to get pregnant. “I’m not proud of my response. I told her…” Kana put her fingers to her forehead. “I told her to tell Hevric the child was his, regardless.”
“Ah,” I said. “You thought she had been with another man.”
“I did, and I’m ashamed to admit it,” Kana said. “I didn’t realize until perhaps a week or two later, when Elila was already showing her pregnancy, that no man had gotten her that way.”
“Did you tell her? She had to have suspected something.” Elila was never going to be a scholar, but she wasn’t a complete fool, either. The village school teaches about pregnancy. How long a pregnancy should last, for humans and for our pets and livestock, is important knowledge. An accelerated pregnancy in any creature means that one of them has been about.
“No, I didn’t.” Kana met my eyes. She was searching for something from me. I could see the look of longing in her gaze. “I thought it would be better, somehow. I don’t know if she figured it out or not. I think, even if she did know on some level, she was in denial. When she came to me later for something to soothe her aching back, she made it clear that she must have been confused as to when the baby was conceived.”
“It was too late by then to do something about it, anyway,” I said. It was a mere statement of the facts, but Kana looked relieved to hear me say it out loud. “Once you both knew it was one of theirs, even if you just suspected, the Laws stopped you from doing anything to harm it.”
The cries of the child pierced the thin walls of Kana’s home, interrupting her before she could say whatever it was on her lips. She kept it in her bedroom, where she didn’t have to look at it in the light of day. “Damn the Laws,” she whispered. She met my eyes once more, this time with a resigned acceptance. “I have to feed it. Unless you care to assist?”
I shook my head. The memories of the night of the birth came fresh to my mind. I shouldn’t have been there. It was no longer my duty to attend the first birth of the new year. It was my son’s. I volunteered to go in his stead, for he was meeting with the Council at the time, and as the new Village Head, he needed as much time as he could get learning to navigate their politics.
Night was almost upon the village. The last vestiges of dusk just clung to the air as the light of day faded away, but the path to the Rollen home was not dark. The azure glow of the cielmoss high above, where it clung in scattered patches to the ceiling, was just visible past the brightcloud passing above me. The path was dirt, but it had been cleared of the weave, which on either side of me was just beginning to reopen its violet blooms at the passage of the brightcloud. In a few places, the sable vines of the weave had begun to invade the path. They would have to be cleared soon, before they sent down strong roots. I found myself awed by the beauty of it all. It seemed to be an auspicious time for a birth.
I haven’t spent enough time in my life contemplating the beauty of the world. Yes, there are ugly parts to it, but you can’t have one without the other. I’m not normally one who thinks of such things. Birth holds a special place in my heart, and it always brings out my more pensive, emotional side. My wife bore me three children before she died birthing Vane. He was the only one that lived past infancy. That’s why I like to attend births in the village. I want to try to do my part, even if it was a small one.
Kana had already arrived. The Rollens had a simple home, but it did have a separate bedroom, which is where I found everyone gathered. Hevric held Elila’s hand. I could see immediately he wasn’t being of much use, even if he did look painfully excited. Kana’s assistant was grinding up some sort of herbal concoction with a mortar and pestle. Kana was down between Elila’s legs. She spared me a glance as I entered the room.
“Go make sure the water is boiling. If it is, put the cloth in it. Please.”
I nodded. By tradition, I had only been required to attend the first birth of the year. I had taken it upon myself to attend many more. I was accustomed to following Kana’s instructions.
When I returned, with the boiled towels ready in a woven basket, Kana’s face was grim. That was never a good sign. “Push,” she commanded.
Elila shook her head. “It hurts, Mother,” she gasped. Kana was not Elila’s mother, but when a laboring woman’s mother was dead, Kana took on that role to prevent ill omen for the child.
“It’s going to hurt. Fia almost has your herbs ready, right, Fia?” Kana’s tone was calming for Elila’s benefit. However, from the cast of her face, something was wrong. She jerked her head toward Fia, who hurriedly brought Elila the bowl. “Eat that. It will help with the pain.”
“But it feels like it’s scraping me,” Elila gasped. “Like it’s cutting me open.” She moaned, a low, unsettling, animal sound. To her credit, she did not scream.
“Just take the medicine. You will be fine.” She turned to me as I placed the basket next to her. “Get her some water, Telal. She’ll need to wash the herbs down.”
I was lucky, for next to their stove they still had cool water in a bucket. I didn’t have to run to the well. I returned swiftly, with the bucket and a carved wooden cup. I passed them to Hevric, who thanked me. I patted his hand in assurance. When I moved toward the foot of the bed, however, I realized that Kana was crying.
From their position, with Elila’s gown positioned as it was, Hevric and Elila couldn’t see Kana’s face. Her voice remained shockingly steady. “The baby is crowning,” she said. “You must push, Kana. Your child will be with us soon.”
Even now, knowing that she knew beforehand, I don’t know how she remained so calm. If it weren’t for her implacable attitude, I might have screamed or panicked. Immediately afterward, before Elila and Hevric were killed, I remember wondering how Kana kept herself so tranquil. In my mind, for all she knew she had been in a room with one of them. She helped to birth one of their kindred. As is dictated by the Laws, though, she had no choice.
I knelt down beside her to see the child, placing my hand comfortingly between her shoulder blades. I feared a stillbirth, or a child hideously malformed, like my daughter who was born without a skull. The true was far worse. Sliding out Elila was no human child, but a creature from the worst nightmares of anyone I’ve ever known. Its head was covered not in flesh, but in scales. Black, sharp-edged scales, darker than a basement at midnight. It was as though the candlelight in the room couldn’t even touch them. As I watched, its shoulder writhed and its arm popped free. A tiny, clawed hand reached forth into the world.
I gasped, my hand going to my heart, which was suddenly hammering within my chest. Kana’s hands caught the creature by its shoulders, and Elila pushed, knowing nothing about what was being expelled from her body except that it was already causing her pain. The scales of its shoulders and arms sliced her as it came free. Elila whimpered. Her blood poured onto the white towels Kana had set beneath her.
Without being asked, I reached for the towels to clean the child. The thoughts going through my head did not align with my actions. I can barely remember what I did or thought in that moment. I know we must have cleaned the child at the foot of the bed, where the parents couldn’t see. I know we must have wrapped it in a clean, dry blanket. My memory of the time is eerily silent, though I know there must have been sound — I know Elila and Hevric must have asked us what was wrong; I know that Kana’s assistant Fia ran from the room, screaming, and that it was she who alerted the village.
I covered the child with the blanket as Kana began to clean and see to Elila. Elila reached for the child. She couldn’t see the small, black hand that had snuck free of the blanket. Even at birth, the claws were sharp. She couldn’t see its eyes looking up at me, bizarrely clear and ready for the world. They were Elila’s eyes, almost exactly. I shook my head. My grip tightened on the tiny bundle. I wanted to spare Elila this pain. I could take the child myself, I could run. Maybe Kana would tell them the child had died.
But then Hevric stood up and approached me. His brow was furrowed. I could tell he was on the verge of anger. I would be, watching my reactions, and Kana’s, and with the apprentice running from the room. He was a tall, strong man, with broad shoulders. His anger was intimidating. Elila was weeping. She knew what was wrong. I moved the blanket so that Hevric could see the child’s face.
He dropped to the ground. He didn’t fall. He didn’t faint. He just sat, hard, where he had been standing. I couldn’t look at him. He covered his eyes with his hands and curled up into a ball. I don’t hold it against him. If it were my child, I would have reacted similarly.
I gave the child to Elila. She held it in one arm and wept, covering her face with the other. The rest of the time before the villagers came for them is a blur. Hevric and Elila fought, each accusing the other of being one of them. I came away from that believing it was neither of them, though we are taught that the Dragons are peerless actors.
When the villagers came, I was waiting outside their door. My own son was at its forefront, with the rest of the Council behind him. The motes of light from the brightcloud fell heavily around and between us.
“Is it true, father?” Vane asked.
I nodded. What else could I do? “What are you doing here?”
Vane didn’t answer me. At his command, men from the village dragged Hevric and Elila from their home. They left the child there, in Kana’s arms, and she is burdened with it still. Under the Dragon Laws, we can’t harm it until it reaches maturity.
Vane didn’t listen to my protests. Neither did the villagers. I told them what would happen. We held an impromptu Village Meet. I tried to present to them a sensible course of action: Question the couple, treat them with dignity, hold them until we could be sure one of the Dragons wasn’t masquerading under one of their faces. If we held them long enough, surely they would become impatient to follow their father’s directive to impregnate the world. They would leave us, and we would know which was the mortal whom they had deceived.
I will spare you the details of Hevric and Elila’s death. Our village will be recovering from that shock for years, for they have killed two of their own, and a reminder of that lives on in Kana’s home. Who knows what decision they will make when the child reaches ten years of age, and the laws no longer protect her? I don’t.