Sophie breathed into the child’s mouth and pressed lightly on his chest, but there was no response. Beads of sweat were forming on her forehead and her stomach was cramping with anxiety, but she couldn’t stop. Unable to believe the truth that was before her, she tried again. Still nothing.
Unshed tears burned the corners of her eyes as she looked down at the porcelain face. They’d lost eleven children in the past three months and she wasn’t sure her heart could take a twelfth. There had to be some way to save this one, this tiny boy she’d helped bring into the world just three years ago.
“Let him go, Sister Sophie. He’s gone.”
She turned to face Naryn, her betrothed and the healer for the small village, but she couldn’t bring herself to look him in the eye. He was a good man, even handsome in a scholarly way, but after three years of serving beside him she was no closer to loving him than on the first day she’d been stationed here. Not that she hadn’t tried. She desperately wanted to love him, willed herself to, but every day they seemed to grow further apart. And, every day, it was getting harder for her to bear the thought of being married to the man.
“I helped birth him.” A small piece of her wanted him to take her in his arms, comfort her in some way. Maybe then…
“And I helped birth the girl we lost yesterday. That we are attached to them doesn’t bring them back.”
The words held a truth, but their cold nature filled her with bitterness nonetheless. “We should be able to do more. We haven’t even saved one!”
Looking down at the lifeless body, she felt her tenuous hold on her control start to waiver. He had a mother and father, but he was also hers. She considered all the village children her children. They were, after all, the only children she’d ever have a hand in raising. True, she was expected to have Naryn’s children, but they would be spirited off to the schools before they could even walk. Their children would be part of the next generation of clerics. But not this child. This child was supposed to grow up in front of her; he was supposed to run past her abbey, laughing at some harmless prank he’d pulled on friends. It was the order of things. Your children belonged to the church, but you got to share in the raising of the village children.
“I know this is painful,” said a soft, feminine voice.
Sophie turned to look at the young, silver-haired woman who’d just walked into the room. She doubted the woman really knew how painful it was. How could she after being here for one year? “Do you, Sister Lilith?” The challenge rang though the air.
Naryn pulled his top lip back in a snarl. “Sister Lilith cares for the people of this village as much as you or I do.”
Hearing the distain in his voice, she knew she should be jealous. He and Lilith had become very close over the last year, close enough to set tongues wagging in the small town. But she wasn’t. She felt only anger over the injustice of the plague. “Why only children? Their lives hadn’t even begun.”
Naryn stared at her for a moment before taking a deep breath.
It was an argument they’d gone over too many times to count, but one she kept coming back to. This time, however, he chose to keep his silence, leaving Lilith to defend their position.
“You mustn’t think of it like that.” Her voice was filled with calm condescension. “They’ve crossed over now. Their souls are at peace and will be born into the world again.”
They’d been saying the same thing since the plague started, and for three months she’d let it go. A youth wasted writing scripture and a life of raised eyebrows had taught her to think twice before opening her mouth. But she couldn’t keep her silence any longer. “But what did their souls take with them?” Her voice was loud, but she was beyond caring. “What great lessons did they learn? Patience? Faithfulness? Righteousness? Love? It was a wasted incarnation! They will be born again only to suffer!”
“The Maker doesn’t waste lives, Sophie.” Naryn’s words came out in a harsh hiss. “They were here for a purpose, for His purpose. How can you question that?”
“Because he was three!” She stood and gently picked up the child’s small body. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to tell a mother that her child’s life purpose has been served.”
She walked past him without waiting for a reply. He was blindly devoted, and although she respected the discipline and faith, the blindly devoted were weak willed. She could never love someone with a weak will. Never share her life with someone who thought a child of three had somehow served their life’s purpose because that’s what their scripture said.
Crossing through the door into the infirmary, the mother’s wail slammed into her, its bone-weary misery tearing at Sophie’s soul. It was only ten feet to where she knelt, her husband’s arms locked around her shoulders in support, but each step felt like an eternity.
“I’m so sorry. We did everything we could.” The words sounded hollow even to her, not that there was anything she could have said that would bring comfort to the family.
The father nodded stiffly as he took the boy from her, his face a mask of stone. “I appreciate…” He stopped as his voice broke.
“I only wish we’d been able to…” She couldn’t bring herself to finish the sentence, tears were once more gathering in the corners of her eyes.
With his son in his arms, he helped his wife to stand. She looked up at Sophie with haunted eyes, and then turned with him to leave.
It wasn’t until after the door swung shut behind them that Sophie allowed the tears to escape and flow down her cheeks unchecked. She cried for the children they’d lost, but she also cried for the ones they were going to lose the next day and the day after that, the ones that were alive tonight, but would be gone by week’s end. That was the worst part, knowing there were going to be more.
When there were no more tears to cry, she stood and quietly made her way out of the building and into the black cover of the night. She wanted nothing more than to return to her home and sleep for a week, but the Spring Solstice didn’t care if she was tired. And there was much to do to ensure they had a good harvest. Despite the current crisis, the people were still going to need grain to eat and barter with come fall.
As she walked through the warm night air, she tried to concentrate on the rites that would tell her when planting should be done, but images of the child’s face kept pulling her back.
It wasn’t fair. She wasn’t even a healer. Why had they dragged her into this?
She shook her head to dismiss the question. It was selfish for her to wallow when so many children were sick and dying. Besides, she already knew the answer. They’d asked her because they were desperate. Desperate for anything that could stop the plague. And an understanding of plants might have given them the break they were looking for. Unfortunately, it hadn’t.
The abbey was dark and its air stale as she pushed open the heavy door. Settling in at her desk, she couldn’t contain the series of yawns that escaped her as she tried to focus on the charts laid out in front of her. The work was tedious, but it helped her escape the memory of the children, for a time at least. There were no distractions, however, when she finally went to sleep.
As soon as she closed her eyes, her dreams mocked her, amplifying her failures not only with the plague but with her station as a whole. Three years and what had she accomplished? Her more unconventional convictions had labeled her an outsider to most in the village, she couldn’t make herself feel anything for a man any sane woman would swoon over, and because of a freak ice storm her first year here, the farmers were still wary of her predictions.
She’d done everything asked of her, everything expected by her church, so why did she always come up short? It was a cruel question. And it kept her tossing and turning until the warm rays of the morning sun woke her.
She didn’t mind the bright light streaming through her window, though. Despite the rough night, she loved lying on her side, looking at its glorious glow. And soon, she was overcome with the need to stand in its comforting warmth, to stare into the clear sky and bask in the rejuvenation of the earth.
Jumping out of bed, she dressed in comfortably roomy breeches and a long tunic before throwing a robe over her shoulders. She didn’t bother with her boots as she made her way outside. She loved the feel of the soft earth under her toes, had always found its cold touch comforting.
The sky was a beautiful expanse of blue as she stood in the morning air. So perfectly clear that the black form flying through it immediately grabbed and held her attention. After all, one didn’t see dragons very often this far into the grasslands. She hadn’t seen one her entire time here.
She watched as it dove and rolled through the air, its movements as fluid as a fish swimming through the sea. It was a sight she missed greatly since moving, one that made her smile warm with affection.
It was almost directly above her when she saw it start to fall. At first she thought it was merely a deep dive, but when she heard its roar of pain, she knew something was terribly wrong. Transfixed by the horror of the moment, she watched until the sound of it striking the ground snapped her into action. Running back into the abbey, she grabbed her kit of herbs and then ran to the stable. The creature hadn’t landed far away. She prayed that she’d reached it before its hunter did as she spurred her mount into a run.