Authors: Stacey Rourke
Written by Stacey Rourke
©2014 by Stacey Rourke
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher.
Published by Anchor Group
PO Box 551 Flushing, MI 48433
Edited by Melanie Williams
Cover design by Najla Qamber Designs
To my mom,
From a very young age you not only supported my creativity, but encouraged it. You taught me to believe in myself, dream big, and never to quit just because things get hard. For all of this, and countless other things that made me the person I am today, I thank you. I love you.
Early in the 1800s
Humming a merry little tune, the old woman sliced the flapping bird from throat to belly. Black feathers broke free as the raven thrashed for freedom, only to have the fight leave its body in a gush of crimson. Scooping up the lifeless bird with her arthritic claw, the woman squeezed it over her cast iron skillet to drain its fluids. With one final shake, she cast its body aside with a casual flick of her wrist.
the crone rasped to the cooing baby swaddled in his basket. “It is almost time.”
She hobbled to
the rickety baker’s rack in the corner, the floorboards creaking beneath her bare feet. The tips of her fingers brushed over vials, turning some to find what she needed. Gathering the hem of her apron up like a basket, she dropped in her selected ingredients. Each bottle clinked its welcome to the new additions added. Back at her waist-high work counter, she arranged them one by one in the order she would need them. Popping out the corks, she measured out the necessary drop, dollop, or splash and added them to the skillet. The foreboding smell of sulfur—with its hungry, seething darkness—filled every inch of the tiny cabin. Leaning over the pot, the haggard woman cupped her hand to waft the aroma to her.
.” Her hooked nose crinkled in distaste. The quake of her hand steadied only when it closed around the last, and tallest, vial. A slight tip led to a brief roll, sending one newt-sized eyeball bobbing skyward in her mixture. Again, she paused to breathe it in. This time, nodding her pleasure. “Mmmm-hmmm, mmmm-hmmm. Just as it should be.”
Slipping her fingers into the handles of her tongs, she plucked the glass pap feeder—that bore a striking
resemblance to a sauce bowl upper society would use—from the boiling water in the cauldron hung over the fire within her small stone hearth. Steam swirled from the feeder as she set it down to cool. Reveling in her spare moment, she indulged herself by tiptoeing to the baby’s side.
The cherub-faced boy
paused from gumming at his tiny fist to peer up at her, his eyes bright with trust and innocence. Clucking her tongue against the roof of her mouth, the old woman wagged her index finger over his head. The infant’s arms and legs wriggled out from beneath his swaddling blanket, kicking and wiggling his glee.
, my handsome boy,” the crone sighed, laughter slipping past her lips like frothy bubbles spewing over a pot’s edge. “I have such plans for you. Death itself will tremble at the mention of your name.”
The baby’s cheeks puffed, his pink tongue poking
out to blow a raspberry in response.
Her chuckle lingering,
she returned to her task. Thumping her fingers against the feeder, she found it adequately cooled. Her frail arm quaked with the strain of lifting the weighty skillet. The sludgy mixture glopped into the waiting feeder, streaking down the pan’s edge as if sliced there by the talons of a hell beast. Setting the skillet aside, the old woman gave the concoction a final swirl.
“The time has come,” she whispered in
equal parts anticipation and disbelief.
Briefly setting the feeder aside, she scuffled over to claim her most valued treasure. O
ne hand cradled his precious head, the other slid under his rump. The very instant she gathered him into the crook of her arm he snuggled in, nuzzling against her sagging breast. Revisiting her hum of that same haunting melody, she collected the feeder with her free hand and juggled them both the eight shuffled paces to her wooden rocking chair. Easing her weary frame to rest, she coaxed the chair in a gentle sway. The soothing rhythm lulled the baby toward sleep’s peaceful oblivion. Each of his blinks longer than the last.
“Now, now, Edgar,”
she rasped, tickling his chin with one calloused fingertip. “There will be time enough to rest. First, let us fill that belly.”
The old woman eased the
lip of the feeder into his mouth, tipping it just enough to allow one lone drop to test his palate. Instinctively his tiny tongue shoved back against the feeder. His face screwed up in an adorable mask of disgust, long lashes blinking his displeasure. Yet … his lips smacked once, twice, a third time … before his mouth opened to accept more of her carefully formulated brand of love.
“The taste is vile at first,”
the crone whispered, leaning in to dot a kiss to the top of his velvety soft head. “Even so, it quickly makes you long for it.
is the lure of the dark magic.”
back into the chair, she arranged herself with a few careful adjustments so as not to disturb the slurping infant. Back and forth they rocked, the old woman gazing at the precious face of her salvation.
, another would hear what she heard—see what she saw. Her cursed prison of solitude would come to an end, all thanks to a boy and a raven.
The first bang
shook the cabin door on its hinges. The second shattered it into a rain of scraps and kindling, allowing a troop of roughly a dozen soldiers to fill the cramped space. The stomps of their boots drummed an ominous chorus. Each brandished a sword or musket, the business ends all fixed on her. If she found any of this alarming, her stoic façade kept that fact well hidden.
,” she shushed, not pausing the sway of the chair, “you’ll disturb the baby.”
“Secure the child!”
the captain, recognizable by the plume of feathers arching up from his pointed hat, commanded.
broke, revealing itself in the frantic scream that contorted her face in primal rage. “
Holding tight to the infant, she fought against the
officer that attempted to wrestle him from her arms. Cold steel pressing to her throat interrupted their scuffle.
“Let go of the baby
!” Freckles dotted the nose of the youthful soldier who pinned her with his sword, adding an odd flare of whimsy to his murderous glare. “Or I’ll run you both through.”
Vibrating with a potent
combination of anger and fear, she relented. Her jaw set tight, nostrils flaring. Hands, which curled into white knuckled claws, loosened enough for her darling treasure to be swept from her grasp without any harm coming to him.
!” the captain barked, smoothing his hand across his auburn mustache. “We do
now, nor shall we ever, make it a habit of harming innocent children.”
“I know that well and true, Cap
tain.” The lad shrugged with an arrogant smirk. “However,
sure did not.”
Clasping his hands behind his back, the senior officer nodded
his approval. “Very well then, seize her.”
closed around her arms, yanking her to her feet with an unnecessary force that instantly bruised her flesh.
“Linker, I want you to ride in the carriage with the baby. He shall be in your care for our voyage. Take him out now before this
can try anything.” The Captain’s hateful stare fixed on the woman as she struggled to free herself from her captor’s grasps.
!” she snarled and spat. “You
take him! He belongs with me! I am all he has left!”
Sliding his sword from the sheath at his hip, d
arkness writhed deep in the Captain’s eyes. “
You are all he has left because you cut him from his mother’s womb
!” The point of his sword jabbed into the wobbly flesh beneath her chin. “
Your own daughter
! For weeks we have been hunting you down like the
you are. A beast capable of atrocities that boggle the mind!”
The woman stilled
. Course grey hair brushed her shoulder as she cocked her head, a predatory smile curling across her mouth. “If only you knew the true magnitude behind that claim.”
Insolent wretch!” the Captain spat in her face. His saliva dripped from her nose as he returned his sword to its sheath. “You will find no judgment or acceptance in the hangman’s noose—just a right end.”
Turning on the heel of his boot, he clomped back toward the door.
His remaining soldiers fell into formation, lining the perimeter of the room and awaiting further orders. “Bind her hands. She can walk behind the horses, far from the baby.”
is command was finished, a fit of coughs—starting small, but quickly building—rattled the frame of the sinewy woman. Turning her head, she hacked into her shoulder with a violent intensity reserved for the sick and the dying. Tears streamed down her face as she folded in half, her body held up only by the soldiers gripping her. Sudden as the fit started, it stopped. The staged act coming to an abruptly violent halt the second the withered woman lurched forward to clamp her teeth down on the arm of one of her captors. The soldier yelped in pain, pounding the butt of his fist against the back of her skull.
Coppery warmth exploded into her mouth
, her head shaking side to side. Dull teeth tore tissue from bone. Eyes, reflecting nothing but madness, trained on the Captain as the woman raised her head and spit the hunk of flesh in his direction. It fell to the ground with a stomach churning squish.
The wounded soldier
released his hold to apply pressure to his wound. Blood pulsed from between his fingers, pooling at his feet and seeping between the floorboards. Taking advantage of the moment, the woman lunged for him. Throwing her weight into him, she knocked him off balance. As he teetered back, arms wind-milling, she claimed his sword. Closing her hand around the hilt, the witch spun on her remaining captor and buried the blade in his gut. Gore dripped from the steel that tore straight through him. Not bothering to collect the weapon, she dashed to her workstation. The bitten soldier recovered enough to give chase, his platoon closing in just as he did. Her frantic hands grappled for the tabletop. Her body yanked back by an arm that closed around her neck in a choking hold. Spots danced before her eyes, blackness threatening. Even so, she fought to hold on, to claim her spoils before the shadows rushed in to claim her. Slapping one flailing hand against the table, she felt a squish beneath her palm. Giddy delight invigorated her, strengthened her. Pulling back, she whipped the gutted raven directly at the baby.
Officer Linker, charged
with protecting the infant, pivoted on the balls of his feet to shoulder the gore in the infant’s place. Unfortunately, his timing fell short. One chubby hand wriggled free from his tight swaddle as the bird flopped down onto the baby’s delicate skin. Officer Linker’s face crumbled in horror. Shifting the baby’s weight, he raised one hand to fling the filth away. Beneath his fingers, ebony wings fluttered. Black, fixed eyes rolled and blinked. Sliced skin knit itself back together. A polished onyx beak snapped and lashed out, slicing the tender flesh of the baby’s cheek. As a pained cry tore from little Edgar’s chest, the Lazarus bird rose and flapped off into the night.