By Elizabeth Kelly
“What on the gods’ earth were you thinking, Tristan?” Marshall frowned at him as he clucked loudly to the horses. The wagon started with a jolt and Marshall slapped the reins gently on the horses’ backs, encouraging them to move faster. They pulled onto the dusty road, the wagon creaking and groaning as they drove toward their camp.
“What do you mean?” Tristan asked.
“The Red? Are you deliberately trying to curse us?”
“That’s nothing more than an old wives’ tale, Marshall,” Tristan scoffed derisively.
“I didn’t know you spooked so easily.”
“I don’t,” he protested hotly. “But it’s bad enough you’re bringing more humans into the household.
Did you have to bring a Red as well?”
Tristan rolled his eyes. “Afraid she’ll cast a spell on you?”
“You laugh,but my mother used to tell me tales of the witches when I was still a small pup. Terrible tales they were. Women with flaming red hair, chanting and casting spells as they danced naked around their fires. Humans and paranormals alike have been destroyed by them, Tristan.”
Tristan snorted with disdain. “You sound like a dithering old woman,Marshall.Tales of the witches are a human thing.”
“You forget my mother was human.”
“I haven’t forgotten. Human blood runs within your veins,and yet you seem to loathe them.”
Marshall refused to answer, staring forward moodily as Tristan glanced behind him at the back of the wagon. Sophia had insisted on joining Avery and Maya in the back of the wagon and she was sitting on Avery’s lap,her small hand stroking the Red’s hair repeatedly.
“Besides, Sophia has taken a liking to her.”
“You don’t need two nannies,Tristan. It’s just another mouth to feed,”Marshall argued in a low voice. “Tonight, after Sophia falls asleep, I’ll take her to the outskirts and abandon her. You can tell Sophia in the morning that the Red ran away.”
“That’s a death sentence and you know it,” Tristan said. “If the faeries don’t capture her, the leeches definitely will.”
Marshall shook his head. “I’ve never seen you bend so easily to a woman’s will before.”
“Sophia is my child. She has just lost her mother,and a father she barely knows is taking her to a home she does not remember. I will do whatever it takes to make her feel comfortable.”
He paused and gave Marshall a hard look. “I value your opinion,brother, but the woman stays.
Do you understand me?”
“Of course,I do. But when she’s murdering our chickens and using their blood to write spells on our bedroom walls, you’ll owe me an apology.”
Tristan laughed. “Fine. When that happens, I’ll apologize.”
Maya smiled at Sophia. “How old are you, Sophia?”
Sophia looked up from Avery’s hair. “I’m seven.”
“Seven. Wow. And can you read and write?”
Sophia shook her head. “No. Can you?”
Maya nodded. “I can. Perhaps I could teach you? Would you like that?”
“Yes. I have a little brother you know. His name is Nicholas.”
“And how old is Nicholas?” Maya asked.
“He’s seven moons old. He’s sick a lot.”
Maya glanced at Avery. “What kind of sickness?”
Sophia shrugged and stroked Avery’s hair again.“He sneezes and coughs a lot. He’s always throwing up his milk. Mrs. Lanning says it’s the air. She says my mother should never have lived in the city.”
She frowned, her hands tangled in Avery’s hair.“I don’t like Mrs. Lanning. She has bad breath,and she says mean things about my mother when she thinks I can’t hear.”
“Where is your mama?”Avery asked.
“She’s dead,” Sophia said matter-of-factly. “She had a friend who was a bad man. He took her to the leeches.”
“I’m sorry,baby.” Averyrubbed her back,and Sophia leaned companionably against her.
“You must miss her very much.”
Sophia shrugged. “She wasn’t around a lot.” She snuggled in closer, resting her head in the curve of Avery’s neck. “I take care of Nicholas–I’m very good at it.”
“I’m sure you are,baby.”
Sophia wrinkled her nose. “You smell bad, Avery.”
Avery grinned as Maya giggled. “I know I do. Perhaps when we get to your home, I could have a bath.”
“We’re not going home yet. We’re going back to our campsite. Marshall says it will be another two days before we arrive home.”
She sighed. “And it’s not my home. Tristan says I used to live there but I don’t remember it.
Tristan says I’ll like it. He says there are lots of places to explore and the house is very large. I’ll have my own room,and he said he would buy me a pony and teach me to ride.”
She hesitated. “I’m not sure I’ll like living in the country though.”
Marian spoke up. “The country is a wonderful place to live,young miss. The fresh air, big open sky…”
She sighed happily. “The Farthing’s had the most beautiful country home. I’ve missed it. I’m so happy to hear we’ll be living in the country.”
“I’m not.” The girl sitting next to Marian said. She had a thin and mousy face,and she sighed dramatically. “I hate the country. Give me the city any day.”
“I miss the city too,” Maya said.
Marian frowned. “It was the city living that got the ancients into trouble in the first place. All of those people crowded into the city with no place to turn without running into another human.
“The Great War destroyed so many of us because we were crowded into the old cities like cattle. Three quarters of the population wiped out in an instant.”
“We have seen an old city,”Maya said.
The mousey girl’s mouth dropped open. “You’re lying.”
“I am not!”Maya replied indignantly. “Our father took us to see one when we were young. Did he not, Avery?”
“Aye.” Avery nodded. “He did.”
“You would have the sickness if you had gone to the old city.” A dark-haired girl, Avery thought her name was Nadine, said critically. “Your hair and teeth would have fallen out,and the sores would have appeared.”
“Would have been a blessing for that one if her hair had fallen out.”The mousey girl nudged Marian and looked pointedly at Avery.
“Don’t be rude,Renee.” Marian frowned.
Maya shook her head. “My father arranged for us to wear special suits. They had these small canisters attached to them that gave us our own air. That’s why we didn’t contract the sickness.”
“What was it like?” Nadine asked.
Maya glanced at Avery. “I was very young, around Sophia’s age, but I can still remember how tall the buildings were. They blotted out the sun. A lot of them had crumbled to the ground. Father said there used to be a great many more,but the Great War destroyed most of the buildings.”
She shivered delicately. “It was so quiet. No birds sang or animals moved about. Although the sun shone brightly, there were no plants growing. There were no signs of life at all –even after all the years.”
“Why did your father take you there? What if you had gotten sick?” Nadine wondered.
Avery shifted Sophia on her lap. “My father was fascinated with history. He had a thirst for knowledge, particularly about the ancients’ lives, and he wanted to share it with us. He wanted us to learn from the ancients’ mistakes. He believed it was worth the risk.” “He sounds crazy.” Renee sniffed.
Maya frowned but Avery smiled. “Aye. I guess he does.”
“I still wish I had been bought by someone who lived in the city.” Renee sighed. “The lights are so pretty at night, and there is music and dancing and parties.”
Marian rolled her eyes. “What do you know of the parties? You, who was born into slavery.”
“My lord’s son favoured me.” Renee gave her a haughty look. “I pleased him well,and in return he showered me with gifts and took me with him to many gatherings.”
“A fat lot that did you,didn’t it?” Marian glowered at her. “You still ended up being sold when the household could no longer afford to feed you.”
“It doesn’t matter. Now that we’re going to the country, I’ll never hear music or go dancing again,” Renee said.
“Tristan says there is a village not far from his home,” Sophia said. “Perhaps they dance there?”
Renee smiled at her. “Perhaps,young miss. But I would still prefer the city.”
Marian frowned. “With the leeches and the faeries and the Lycans just running rampant? No,thank you. Do you know how many people go missing every day from the city? Why, before Mrs. Farthing sold me, there were five people in the city not five miles from our home that went missing all in one night.
Of course, no one knows for sure what happened to them. Some swear it was the faeries,but I heard from Mr. Windon next door that it was the Lycans. It was a full moon that night.”
Sophia was visibly trembling in Avery’s arms and she squeezed the little girl soothingly. “Are you okay,my pet?”
She nodded as Tristan turned around. His gaze landed briefly on Avery before he scanned the rest of the women. “Quiet your tongues. All of you.”
“The gods be damned, Lord Williams! You said you would be bringing no more than six back with you.”
Avery stared curiously at the woman holding the crying baby. She was tall and thin and looked to be close to fifty. She had deep wrinkles on her forehead and around her eyes,and her black hair was pulled back into a severe bun.
She jiggled the baby impatiently as he screamed louder. “This one has done nothing but cry since you left.”
Tristan took the baby from her, patting his back and lightly bouncing him up and down, as the others climbed out of the wagon. They stretched their legs and stared curiously at the campsite.
Maya held Avery’s hand and squeezed it nervously. Avery smiled reassuringly at her. “It will be fine,Maya.”
They were in a large clearing in the forest just off the main road. A number of horses, their short leads staked to the ground, were grazing at the edge of the clearing. A small carriage was standing close to the road,and there were four tents situated around a large campfire. Two men approached the horses and helped Marshall untie them and lead them to where the other horses were grazing. Two women were in the campsite. One was tending to a pot of boiling liquid over the fire. The smell of cooking rabbit drifted to them on the soft breeze,and both Avery’s and Maya’s stomachs growled in response.
The other was sitting close to the fire, a basket of mending in her lap,and she stared at the small group. When her gaze fell on Avery, she actually gasped and crossed herself nervously before standing and backing toward one of the tents.
Avery, used to the reaction, winked at her and the woman covered her mouth and stumbled into the tent, closing the open flaps firmly behind her.
“What is that?” The older woman stared in horror at Avery. “You bought a Red? What –what were you thinking?” She glanced down at Sophia who was holding Avery’s hand firmly. “Tell me she is not the nanny for your children!”
Tristan was still trying to soothe the wailing baby.“Mrs. Lanning, these women here,“he nodded towards Marian and the others, “will be your new house staff.”
He stared at the women. “Mrs. Lanning is the head of the household. You will obey her without question. Do you understand?”
They nodded as Tristanapproached Maya and Avery. The baby was really screaming now, his small fists flailing and his thin face bright red. His tinybody twisted and squirmed in Tristan’s arms,and his nose was running steadily. His screaming turned into a bout of coughing,and Avery winced as his small body was racked with sudden shivers.
Tristan held the baby out to Maya. “Your sister says you have a way with babies. Now is the time to prove it.”
Maya took the shrieking, wailing baby and glanced timidly at Tristan. “Do you have a blanket for him?”
Tristan nodded and turned to the girl who was standing by the pot. “Laura, grab his blanket please.”
She disappeared into one of the smaller tents before returning with a small, thin blanket. Maya took it from her with a nod of thanks and knelt on the ground, holding the wriggling baby carefully against her.
She spread the blanket out and laid the baby in the middle of it. With quick, practiced movements,she wrapped and folded the blanket around his body until he was swaddled completely.
Only his thin,red face peeked above the blanket,and Maya picked him up before standing. She placed a soft kiss on one red cheek and swayed back and forth, crooning softly to him under her breath.
The baby quieted and stared at Maya’s face as she used one edge of the blanket to wipe the snot and tears from his face.
“Husha, baby,” she sang softly. “Go to sleep,little baby.”
Avery gave Tristan an ‘I told you so’ grin,and he snorted and turned back to Mrs. Lanning.
“This is Nicholas and Sophia’s new nanny. Her name is Maya.” He cupped the back of Sophia’s head. “Sophia, show Maya to yours and Nicholas’ tent. I need you to show her where all of Nicholas’ clothing and supplies are. You and Nicholas will sleep with her in the tent tonight.”
Sophia nodded and Maya held her hand out to the little girl. She took it willingly enough and led her to the tent that Laura had pulled the blanket from. Avery could hear her chattering to Maya about Nicholas as they disappeared into the tent together.”
“What about this one?” Mrs. Lanning looked at Avery with revulsion. “What am I to do with it?”
Tristan smiled at her. “I bought her for you,Mrs. Lanning. She has experience with plants,and I know how much the gardening hurts your back. She’ll relieve you of your garden tending duties and allow you to focus more on the house.”
“Do you really trust her with our food,my lord?” Mrs. Lanning argued.
“I do.” Tristan spoke in a tone that brooked no refusal,and Mrs. Lanning sighed before looking over the group of women.
“They smell horrible and they’ll all need new clothes. They probably carry bugs,and the gods only know what other diseases.”
Tristan glanced at the darkening sky. “They can go to the lake tomorrow and bathe and wash their clothing before we leave. Tonight,we’ll get food into their bellies,” he glanced at Avery’s thin face, “and give them a good night’s rest.”
“And where do you propose I put all of them? We have only one tent for the household staff –we’ll never fit all of us in there.” Mrs. Lanning looked at Avery as she spoke.
Tristan smiled at her before leaving to join Marshall and the other men. “I’m sure you’ll think of something,Mrs. Lanning. You always do.”
Avery picked her way carefully across the campsite toward the tent. She had stopped by Maya’s tent to say goodnight,and dark had fallen like a thick blanket. The campfire was down to coals and she could barely see the man standing guard in the trees just beyond the clearing. She nodded in a friendly way to him and he nodded back impassively.
She stepped on a rock, hissing as it dug into her bare foot, and lifted the flap of the tent. Mrs. Lanning appeared immediately at the entrance. “There is no room for you in here.”
“Where would you suggest I sleep then?”
“You can sleep beside the wagon.”She held out a thin blanket to her.
“I’ll join Maya and the babies in their tent,” Avery said.
Mrs. Lanning grabbed her arm and dragged her toward the wagon. “You’re not going anywhere near those babies. You heard the lord Williams. I am the head of the household and you’ll obey me without question.”
“I am not sleeping outdoors!” Avery tried to dig her heels in,but her body was weak from months of poor nutrition,and the larger Mrs. Lanning easily overpowered her.
She pushed her to the ground next to the large wooden wagon. Before Avery could rise to her feet, Mrs. Lanning had pulled a metal cuff from deep within a pocket in her skirt and latched one end to the wheel of the wagon and the other to Avery’s left wrist.
Avery pulled on the cuff. “Have you gone mad,old woman? Release me now before I start screaming.”
Mrs. Lanning crouched next to her. She had a short but sharp knife in her hand,and she traced it across Avery’s cheek. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you. You may have the Lord Tristan fooled,but I know exactly who and what you are. I won’t hesitate to slit your pretty throat. Do you understand me?”
Avery nodded, her body tense, as Mrs. Lanning smiled. “Good. Obey me,witch,and we’ll have no quarrels between us. Disobey me,and I’ll do everything in my power to convince Lord Tristan that you should be burned at the stake. I’ve been in his employment a long time, and he trusts me.If I tell him that you and your pretty little sister have been practicing witchcraft, he’ll light the fire himself.”
Avery stiffened when she mentioned Maya, and Mrs. Lanning stood and smiled down at her before tossing the thin blanket at her. “Make not a peep,little witch,and I’ll release you in the morning.”
She turned and disappeared into the tent. Avery sighed and curled up into a small ball before wrapping the blanket around her shivering body. It would be a long night.
Watch Out for RED MOON (Chapter 3)
Read Also: Red Moon (Chapter 1)