Midwinter

(Originally published in a Fiction Blog-hop July 2016)

Mid-winter was not the time to be travelling the Hunterback Mountains, but this was my last resort. Back in the autumn, when travel would have been more sensible, I’d thought I had a better alternative. That had turned out to be a dead end, just like all the others.
“I know you’re close,” I whispered. I wrapped my cloak tighter and leaned back against the cliff in this relatively sheltered spot. I had kept the worst of the storm at bay so far with the weather charm tied about my head. But I was tired, I had to find Mallory soon.
I crouched down in the snow and clasped my hands to my forehead in an attempt to block the howl of the wind. She was so close I could feel her in the tingle down my spine and the pricking of my thumbs. I stretched my senses out further…
… And toppled back as the fabric of the rock face behind me gave way before re-forming in front of my eyes.
“Must you?”
The grating voice came from behind me, and I turned stiffly from the illusion of solid rock, resting on hands and knees before pushing myself up.
Fifteen years would change most people, but Mallory was still the rail thin, intense, driven figure I remembered in my nightmares. Only her eyes seemed changed. No longer the glittering jets they’d once been.
“Must I what?” I said stupidly.
“Think so loud. It was giving me a headache.” She turned and headed up a stone passage further into the mountain, giving no indication that she cared whether I followed or not.
“Come on then.” Her voice echoed back and I scurried to follow as if I were still fourteen.
“Slow down,” I told myself. As much because I needed to as for caution.
The chamber that the passage opened out into was larger than it first appeared, but so crammed with almanacs, grimoires and apparatus that there wasn’t much room to move all the same.
I edged carefully through it all towards the fire.
“Stupid.” Her voice somehow managed to convey equal amounts of disinterest and scorn. “Travelling the mountains in this weather. I’d have thought you’d at least have the wit to transform if—”
She broke off as I unwound my cloak and hung it near the fire, exposing the swell of my belly.
“Doubly foolish then,” she said.
“Needs must.” Without asking, I dropped into the chair nearest the fire and began to work off my soaked boots. I propped my feet on something that may have been a footstool beneath the clutter and sighed as my toes began to thaw.
“You may as well have taken the risk. You’ll have to consider it for the journey back. I’ll not keep you till spring.”
“I’ll take my chances.” I rubbed my belly. “This one’s from tough stock. She’ll cope. Far better than to run the risks that transforming would have on an unborn babe. There are enough troubled children in the world,” I added pointedly.
She ignored that. “So, is there a young man waiting for you at home, or did you get knocked up at the last Beltane feast?”
“I don’t think that’s any of your concern.”
“I can count,” she said dryly.
You never could keep anything from Aunt Mallory. But she didn’t need to know the details of the young wizard I’d met last Beltane. Put it down to a moment of weakness, or spring fever, or maybe just those deep dark eyes that—. Regardless, from what he’d said, he’d be deep into a three year journey through the Outer Fens and the Maze Fields by now. If we ever met again it would be too many years from now for him to remember, or think to count the months.
“You needn’t be worrying about your womb drying up, you know. Witches can—”
“I think there’s another baby we should be talking about.” I cut in.
“Ah. You still haven’t found a cure then?”
I turned. “Is that what you’ve been doing all this time? Sitting up here, laughing at us while we spend year on year trying—”
“There is no cure.”
“You can’t know that.”
“Why do you think I took such extreme measures in the first place. And then you—” she turned away, but not before I saw how her hands were trembling. She fumbled with a bottle on a shelf, pouring a draft of something which she swigged back quickly and stood for a moment as whatever it was took effect.
She turned back, leaning against the other chair. From the amount of dust on it she didn’t receive visitors. But its presence hinted that she once had. Or had expected some.
“She must be showing signs by now. Of her true nature. Of what she’ll become.”
I stared into the flames, unable to meet her eyes. Because hadn’t I seen hints and flickers in the princess, that all was not as it should be? Wasn’t that, really, why I was here?
I straightened my spine and closed my eyes, massaging my bump. Unable to still the twitch of a smile as a nudge from inside acknowledged my touch. The journey had been tougher than I’d let on to Mallory and I ached, but she didn’t need to know that.
“Any chance of a brew? Something that hasn’t been simmered and bespelled? I have some chamomile in my pack if you have nothing.”
She snorted, but she’d drummed simple courtesy to visitors, welcome or not, into me years ago, and it still held for her. I heard her shuffle away and a clatter of pots.
“Here.” She shoved a simple clay mug into my hand, the heat welcome to my chilled fingers. I raised it to my nose and inhaled carefully.
“Chamomile and… gooseberry leaf?”
“That’s right. To soothe and settle. I’ll not harm a babe unborn. Not without a damn good reason anyway.”
I had already been through this over and over on my way up the mountain. I was here to ask for help, so I had to show some sign of trust. I took a sip.

© Angela Wooldridge July 2016