Read The Blood List Online

Authors: Sarah Naughton

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General

The Blood List (2 page)

BOOK: The Blood List
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She reached the edge of the cot.

It was empty.

Her breaths came all at once and she panted like a sick dog. Where was he? The wet nurse always fed him up here by the fire. Had they taken him away in a hurry? Was he sick?

The trees at the edge of the forest whispered and sniggered. Then the moon went behind a cloud and the room was plunged into darkness.

A chill gripped her like a dead hand.

Had Agnes’s warning come true?

Had they come for Barnaby?

Then someone spoke downstairs; a raised voice.

Frances flew out of the room and down the stairs. Rounding the newel post at the bottom she burst into the hall and her insides turned to water.

There he was, tipped over the wet nurse’s shoulder, as she patted his back to wind him.

She flew over and scooped him up in her arms, squeezing him so hard he burped at once.

Then for the first time she noticed the other occupants of the room.

Henry was there, and Agnes; but for some reason Henry’s father John was also present with his wife.

They seemed not to have registered her arrival at all – all their attention was fixed on Agnes, who was speaking in hushed tones, as if a corpse had been freshly laid out in the room.

‘I knew from the first time I laid eyes upon it that there was something amiss. You should have summoned me when the first pains came; I would have made sure everything was in

Henry rubbed a hand across his face and said nothing. He was very pale. His mother was crying.

‘As it is the girl tells me the child has been sleeping without the knife.’

All eyes flicked to Frances, then back to Agnes.

‘It’s plain to see the child is over-admired by its mother – this only draws their attention. Why in God’s name did you not baptise it straight away?’

‘We were waiting to see if it lived,’ Henry said. ‘It was such a scrawny thing after all.’

‘And still is!’ Agnes said. ‘Despite its appetite. Martha tells me it is never satisfied and seeks to suckle all day long.’

All eyes turned to the wet nurse who immediately turned her attention to a milk stain on her dress and wouldn’t catch Frances’s eye.

‘This is just one sign. There are plenty more. You have seen yourself how its attention is elsewhere when you try to engage it: it is fixed on the world we cannot see.’

Barnaby clearly had more wind because he started to squirm and whimper on her shoulder. She jiggled him but her movements were jerky with stress and it only made him worse. Agnes came over, her
watery eyes glittering with malice.

‘See how ill-tempered it is?’

‘No he isn’t,’ Frances cried. ‘All babies cry!’

‘Ill-tempered,’ Agnes repeated, as if she had not spoken. ‘Its skin is yellow and covered in hair.’ With a look of distaste she tugged the loose swaddling away from
Barnaby’s face. ‘And look at its sly, black eyes. Those are not the eyes of a week-old child.’

‘They are my eyes!’ Frances cried. ‘Dark brown, like mine!’

‘That is the gaze of one of the immortals.’

Frances stared at her. The baby was dark and hairy like her, it cried like all babies, and surely constant hunger was the sign of a hale and hearty infant.

Agnes stood in front of the fire, casting a long shadow over the room.

‘No luck will come to a family with a changeling child. It will drain away all your happiness, your good fortune and your wealth.’

Henry grew paler than ever. ‘What can be done?’ he said.

‘There are some tried and trusted methods,’ Agnes said. ‘The fairies will not stand to see one of their own hurt, so if the changeling child is threatened they will at once
rescue it, returning the original human baby that was stolen.’

‘Go on,’ John said.

‘The first method is to hold the baby over a fire.’

‘No!’ Frances shrieked but Henry’s mother shushed her angrily.

‘Heat and fire are anathema to the changeling and it will fly away. The second is to force foxglove tea down its throat. In a human child this would burn out its throat: the fairy will

Frances didn’t hear the final part of the sentence.

‘Henry!’ she shrieked. ‘What madness is this? Get her out of my house!’

house?’ snuffled Henry’s mother. ‘You are wed now, girl, the house is Henry’s.’

‘Hush, Mother,’ Henry said, then for the first time he looked at his wife and his face crumpled. ‘You must have noticed something wasn’t right, Fan? He won’t look
at me. He shows no interest in his surroundings. He looks so . . . so strange.’

‘If you heat a shovel until it is red-hot,’ Agnes went on, ‘then shovel the creature up in it, it will at once leap off and run away. I know a woman who saw such a thing happen
with her own eyes.’

‘Get out of my house!’ Frances shrieked. ‘Or I will take that poker and spear your black heart.’

The room fell silent but for the crackle of the flames in the grate.

Agnes regarded her steadily.

‘Sometimes,’ she said quietly, ‘a witch begets such a child by copulating with the devil.’

Frances shifted Barnaby onto her other hip, drew back her right arm and struck the old woman in the face. Agnes flew backwards onto the soft cushion of Martha’s lap.

Frances was hyperventilating now, gasping such huge gulps of breath that she could not say more: though she wanted to.

‘Get her upstairs, Henry,’ John snapped.

She turned to see John and his wife fixing her with matching expressions of disgust. How things had changed now that they were married and Henry owned everything. Beside her the two women were
struggling to their feet, spluttering their outrage. To add to it all the baby was crying.

‘I will
go upstairs,’ Frances cried over the cacophony. She turned on Henry, who now had vivid spots of scarlet on his cheeks as he stared over her head at his father.

‘I am your wife, Henry, and I demand she leaves this house. And that fat milk cow along with her. I will feed my own s—’

Henry lunged forwards, grabbing her so violently that she bit her tongue and the midwife’s stitches tore.

‘Yes, you are my wife and you will do AS I SAY,’ he bellowed, ‘AND I SAY GO UPSTAIRS!’

She stared at him, the bitter taste of her own blood filling her mouth. Apart from Barnaby’s cries the rest of the room was silent. Henry’s parents were staring at them and she could
feel the eyes of the other women on her back.

Henry swallowed then muttered, ‘Do as I say, Frances, please.’

His blue eyes stared and sweat had plastered his blond curls to his temples.

‘Do not let their words poison your heart,’ she whispered. ‘Please, Henry.
’ Tears spilled over her cheeks and the room swam into a blur of shadow and
firelight. She batted blindly at the pale figure of her handsome husband but he did not take her hand.

‘I won’t, Fan,’ he said, moving aside to let her pass. ‘I promise.’

She managed to get up the last few steps up to their room before a crushing exhaustion fell on her like an anvil. Pressing Barnaby to her chest she crawled to the bed, but she
did not have the strength to climb up onto it. The floorboards were refreshingly cold after the heat of the room downstairs. She was sweating heavily and the cut between her legs seethed like a
lime burn.

Manoeuvring herself awkwardly onto her back she sank down, tucking Barnaby into her nightdress to prevent him tumbling onto the hard floor. He was still crying, but without conviction now that
he was nestled in her familiar warmth. She patted his back a few times and sighed words of comfort, but then her arm slipped off and her eyelids began to sink. She let her head fall to the side.
The shadow of the cradle fell across the floor, crisp in the moonlight. Around it glimmered sticky patches where the urine had been splashed by Agnes, who had informed Frances confidently that this
was extremely offensive to fairies and would repel their attacks.

Stupid Agnes.

Stupid Henry for believing her nonsense.

And stupid her for marrying him.

Frances’s eyelids grew heavier but she forced them open.

The window that looked out on the forest began to rattle softly and as she watched, wisps of light crept in around the edges of the frame. They drifted towards the cot and gathered above it
until the whole room was illuminated with ghostly light. A whispering began: the same sound the trees made in the dead of night when the wind was high. It pulsed to the rhythm of the light. She
knew she was dreaming but forced her lips to move and the breath to rise up from her lungs: ‘
Our Father,’
she began, ‘
Which art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy name
Thy kingdom come . . .’

But before she could finish she was asleep.

Fairies plagued her dreams. Sometimes they would be no more substantial than dandelion seeds floating around the empty cot: sometimes they would gather round her bed,
child-sized but wizened and sharp-toothed, stretching their claws towards Barnaby. She would hiss and spit at them and then sometimes they would grow and become Henry and his parents, or Father
Nicholas, or her own mother, though she knew they were not real and would crook her fingers at them to make the sign that wards off the evil eye. Sometimes Barnaby would wake and look up at her and
smile and say, ‘Don’t be afraid, Mama, you and I will never be parted,’ and his voice was velvet, like the wing of a moth.

‘I’m not afraid,’ she would try and say but her mouth was filled with hard lumps, knobbled and papery like ancient fingers. She imagined they were Agnes’s fingers,
probing her gums, trying to pull out her teeth, and she bit down hard. They released a pungent juice that burned her tongue. Ginger.

She was sick, then.

She opened her eyes and squinted at the brightness of the room. A blur of colour to her left resolved itself into a vase of flowers. Henry had not given her flowers since they were courting.
There was also a glass of water and a plate of dried fruit and sweetmeats.

Her heart leaped. Agnes would not tend her so well: she must have been sent away.

Candles were lit in the sconces beside the bed and the fire burned in the grate: with logs of applewood judging by the fragrance. Its leaping flames made the shadow of the cradle move as if it
were rocking. But the cradle was still. And the sweet soft weight of her son was gone.

Her chest had deflated and no longer ached. There was no tenderness between her legs and swinging her legs over the bed did not produce a crackle of dried blood or a tug from the stitches.

How long had she been sick?

She padded across the floor and opened the door. As she passed the window she saw that the sky above the forest was lightening. It was dawn: surely too early even for the servants to be up, and
yet their truckles were empty.

She peered into the hallway. All was quiet.

‘Henry?’ she called, suddenly afraid.

There was a rustle and a creak.

‘I’m here, my love,’ he called softly from downstairs.

‘Where are the servants?’ she said, stepping onto the first stair.

‘I sent them away for a while.’

‘And Agnes?’

‘She’s gone.’

As she descended the room opened up before her. Henry was sitting by the fire. She covered her mouth to muffle a gasp. His face was grey, his hair dishevelled, his clothes awry.

Her knees buckled and she collapsed onto the stair.

‘Where’s Barnaby?’ she croaked.

Henry lowered his hand over the arm of the chair and swung it around, presumably in search of the bottle of wine that stood there. He knocked it over and it glugged a crimson pool onto the

‘Where is he?’ she said again. ‘Did you let Agnes take him?’

‘I took him myself,’ he said.

Pulling herself up on the banister she climbed down the last stairs.


He leaned forwards and pressed his head into his hands.

‘It was agreed by the aldermen,’ he said. ‘Once Father Nicholas had got involved there was nothing I could do to stop it.’

She walked across the cold flagstones and stood in front of him, her breath coming in snatches.

‘What have you done with my child?’ she said.

He raised his head and looked at her. All his beauty had drained away and weakness and folly were written into every line of his drawn face.

‘I did not let them hurt him,’ he said. ‘They wanted to use fire but I said no. It was Father Nicholas that suggested the midden heap, not me.’

He started to cry. Mucus drooled from his nose and he wiped it away with a grubby sleeve.

‘The midden heap?’ she said. ‘In the forest?’

‘That’s what you have to do with changelings,’ he said. ‘You leave them on the midden heap overnight and the fairies take them back and leave your own child in their

She stared at him.

‘You left my baby on a pile of shit and bones in the middle of winter?’

Henry nodded. Now he was crying properly, ugly bestial sobs that shook his whole body.

‘I . . . I didn’t put him there.’

‘Who did?’ she said.

‘One of the other men, I c . . . can’t remember . . .’

‘There were others there?’

He nodded: ‘The whole village.’

‘The whole village?’ Her voice rose in pitch. ‘And no-one tried to stop it?

‘Only the furrier and his wife. She tried to pull the . . . to pull him off but we . . . they stopped her.’

Frances dropped to her knees in the ashes of the fire. Her son was dead.

She did not know how long she sat like that listening to Henry’s grunting sobs. Eventually the fire died, its warm light replaced by the cold glare of dawn. Outside the birds chattered and
laughed. She raised her head.

‘Is he buried yet,’ she said, ‘or can I see him?’

Henry had fallen asleep. Black dribble seeped from the corner of his mouth to stain the seat cover. It would never come out. It would always be there, like a bloodstain, to remind her what he
had done.

She knelt up and slapped his face. His skin was clammy and reptilian.

Henry awoke with a cry and blinked his crusty eyes.

BOOK: The Blood List
4.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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