Koth Conwen paused for a long time and Lowen held her breath. The old woman’s sharp little eyes upon her made her face prickle. Eventually, she lifted her shaking teacup to set it back on the table, still full, in an attempt to soften the tension with some small action. Still, she could not look at her grandmother.
“There are ways to make your problem disappear,” Conwen finally said, her words clipped.
Lowen looked up with a start. She knew what her grandmother was implying. There were certain herbs and concoctions that, if taken, would allow her to pretend the pregnancy had never been. Lowen knew Scrat who had done this. Women who were unwilling to leave their hard-earned places amongst the hunting or scouting parties for a season to care for an infant. It would be so simple.
The thought of it made Lowen want to wretch. She shook her head slowly, her lips pressed tightly together. “I won’t do that,” she said.
Conwen sat back in her rocking chair. “I understand,” she said. “But, my girl, you must know the path you are choosing will be a hard one. Almost certainly a treacherous and lonely one, too.”
“I know that,” Lowen whispered.
“Do you? This will be no ordinary child, Lowen. Do you understand precisely why the Scrat and the satyr are forbidden to lie together? Have you read that in any of your fancy books?”
Lowen gaped at her grandmother for a moment. She was quite sure she had not told her that Nicanor was a satyr. She wondered what else the bitterblue had told the old woman and the thought made her shiver. Her gaze wandered to the gently simmering cauldron in the centre of the room. The silky indigo smoke winding up towards the ceiling smelt sweet, edged with something thick and dark.
“I believe it stems from distrust, not from outright hatred for the satyr,” she said, speaking slowly, turning her thoughts over before she spoke them aloud. “My mother has always spoken highly of them. She has great respect for their leader, Pyros. I asked her once why we were forbidden to enter satyr territory unannounced, why we were discouraged from befriending them. She said it was in order to maintain our delicate peace. Nymed was almost ripped apart by the satyr’s betrayal after the Waste Wars and that could never be allowed to happen again.”
“What a lot of horse shit.”
“Grandmother?” Lowen had never heard Koth Conwen speak so harshly before. Her heart began to hammer in her chest. Grandmother’s face had become drawn and pinched, her eyes unfamiliar and glassy. It gave Lowen the cold, unsettling feeling of being trapped with a dangerous stranger.
“You have never been told the truth of the Waste Wars, none of you have. Only the Scrat Chieftain is ever made aware of the facts and they are sworn to keep that secret through all the days of their lives. I only know because I was to be chieftain once.”
Lowen stiffened. This too was new knowledge. She had never suspected her solitary, herb-tending grandmother had once harboured a desire to lead.
“It’s true,” Koth Conwen said, noting Lowen’s reaction. “I retracted my claim mere hours before the Passing Over ceremony, but not before the old chieftain recounted her secrets to me. Maybe it was those secrets that changed my mind. It was so long ago I’m no longer sure. I just know I came to the very firm decision that I didn’t actually want to lead our people. I no longer had the stomach for such a responsibility. Don’t look at me like that, child. Do you believe I was a coward? Sometimes accepting our own weaknesses is the strongest thing we can do.”
Lowen shook her head, prompting her grandmother to continue.
“The Scrat are told as babes that the great Waste Wars were a victory against the might of Armoria. We spin tales about that deathless old goat, Lord Dewer; about how he sought to crush Nymed and take it for himself, just as he crushed Kudann beneath the bricks of his black city. As with much of history, this is only partly correct. It is true the Scrat and the Satyr Nation joined together in order to overcome Lord Dewer’s army. It is true that we prevailed and eventually pressed him back behind the walls of Armoria; something I doubt we would be able to accomplish today, might I add, not now that his druids have become so powerful. What is not true, however, is the reason why Lord Dewer attacked us. He had no interest in our ancient forest. He had already stolen all the magick he could ever want from the ruins of Kudann. No, he wanted something far more precious. He wanted our children.”
Koth Conwen paused and began to cough. Her eyes watered and a single ink-edged tear ran across the planes of her softly lined face. The cough deepened, sounding as if it was coming from the deepest part of her. The old woman doubled over in her chair, one hand balled into a fist at her mouth.
“Are you well?” Lowen said, reaching to pat her grandmother’s back. The action only served to make the coughing worse. “Should I get some water?”
Koth Conwen shook her head fiercely, shrugging away Lowen’s hand. Lowen could only watch with mounting concern until the coughing fit finally subsided. Her grandmother took a long, shuddering breath and straightened against the back of her chair. Lowen was unable to disguise her sharp intake of breath. Koth Conwen’s eyes were large, almost bulbous, ringed with swimming indigo. Her lips were stained blue and a dribble of inky bitterblue had escaped the side of her mouth. Lowen found it hard not to stare as it made a slow trail down her grandmother’s soft white chin. The old woman no longer appeared to have the presence of mind to wipe it away.
“Grandmother,” Lowen whispered, “how much bitterblue have you drunk?”
“It had so much to show me,” Koth Conwen said. Her rasping voice was horribly unfamiliar. “The more I took, the more it revealed. I had to know more. I had to know. I had to warn Lowen, I had to protect her.”
Lowen had to fight down the instinct to bolt from the hut and run to fetch her mother. She suddenly longed for Kerra’s strength, for her quiet confidence. Instead, she grasped her grandmother’s hands tightly in her own and forced herself to look into the ghoulish, blue-tinged mask of her face.
“It is Lowen, Grandmother. I’m here. Come back to me.”
“The Gift of the Moon,” Conwen announced, her voice rising as the liquid pooling in her mouth began to froth. “We denied our Gifts. We denied Joria.”
“I don’t understand, Grandmother.” Lowen hurriedly reached for a delicately embroidered cloth folded neatly on the table. She dabbed clumsily at the blue-rinsed spittle running from her grandmother’s mouth, staining the tiny pink flowers stitched into the corners of the cloth a dark, slick blue.
“The Gift of the Moon,” Conwen cried again. “Children born of Scrat and Satyr. We could not save them. We could not let Lord Dewer take them. We wiped them from existence, even as their mothers wept. We took them from this life and we made it law that such a child could never be born again. They are too powerful, too tempting a prize for Lord Dewer.”
Lowen failed to suppress a shudder as her grandmother’s glassy eyes suddenly focused sharply on her. She grabbed at the front of Lowen’s tunic with thin, brittle-boned hands, bringing her face down close to hers. When she spoke again, flecks of blue flew from her mouth and landed on Lowen’s cheek.
“Lowen,” she rasped. “You must protect your Gift, the first to be born in a hundred years. The moons have turned, Aikana watches over you now, child. Silver-eyed kittens are mewling in the gutters. Music is dancing with the shadows. The beasts have escaped their dungeons and now they turn their faces to the light of a world they should never have set eyes upon. You must find Gwyrdmet. Find the Green King. Protect the Gift.”
With a long, twitching spasm that made Lowen’s breath catch in her throat, Koth Conwen fell back against the chair and fainted clean away. Lowen had to clamp both hands over her mouth to keep from crying out.