Today’s prompt posed a difficult challenge. My Friend and I were entirely stumped to reveal the best advice we had ever been given. My Imp came to the rescue. He told us he remembered an episode from the ancient days, when an acquaintance of his was charged with looking after someone else’s baby for an indefinite period of time. At that time, the sympathy and encouragement of an older person proved invaluable.
Also, please excuse the quotes–old habits die hard.
The baby would not hush. Caili tried desperately to soothe it, but her effort must have been edged in desperation, for it only cried all the harder. Its cries were so loud that they hurt her ears. They were loud enough to rouse Svart from where he had sunk in fever sleep.
He raised himself on his arm.
‘Give it to me,’ he said. ‘I will hush it.’
‘Then let it cry itself to death.’
She stood. She gave it to him.
The little one still cried. When the dragon-shifter sank dizzily back, it quieted a little, but only to search at his breast. Its kneading fingers roused Svart once more and he rested his fingers on the child’s head.
‘He is starving,’ said the dragon-man.
Caili hadn’t really thought of the baby as a person. It didn’t really act like one. But in a moment, it was a he.
‘What will we do?’ she asked. ‘Can you use your magic?’
‘Magic?’ He coughed a laugh. The ragged motion surprised the child. ‘What magic do you think is in me?’
Even as he spoke he raised himself and took the child in his arm.
‘Shh, wee one, shh,’ he said. ‘I am hungry, too, and have nothing to give thee. Hush, m’dear, my ain.’
The child did not hush for some time. But at last, won by his quietness and patience, the baby turned its face against his damp neck and rested there. It still sobbed a little, but it held to him, too.
‘Your “ain”?’ said Caili, softly.
Svart raised his eyes. They were exhausted eyes.
He did not answer.
‘You give your heart so willingly, so easily,’ she whispered. ‘I wish—’
‘You wish?’ prompted Svart.
Caili felt at once like a whimpering infant. She shook her head.
‘It’s just—I wish—I wish I were so brave.’
The dragon-thing looked at her in surprise.
‘Brave?’ he repeated, soft.
She glanced aside.
‘You—you raised a princess. Alone.’
‘Was it hard?’
‘The hardest thing I have ever done,’ he replied. Carefully, he leaned to rest once more.
‘Why did you do it?’
‘I was bound by a promise.’
‘A promise to—to love?’
There was something almost frightened in her voice. She was desperate.
Svart saw that she was scared.
‘Come here a moment, dearie,’ he said.
‘I don’t want you to take him. Sit here, a moment.’
Svart searched her face. The effort made his lids sink a little further. Still, he resisted sleep.
‘Wilt thou be a little brave thyself?’ he said.
The old speech roused her. Caili hung back a moment more, then went to him and sat beside him.
‘When Muiri was given to me,’ said Svart, ‘I did not love her. How could I? I knew that she was mine, given to me through more than blood, and yet I hated her a little, for being so sudden, and always wanting, wanting, even when I was hurt myself or starving, or scared. One night I could bear no more. She was crying, much like this one. She wouldn’t stop. The sound went through me like a knife. Isn’t it awful then? And yet I held her in my arms. I wept too, for I was worn raw as can be, and a little broken.
‘“Hush,” I said to her. “Why will you not hush?” She went on crying like a banshee with a hiccup. And I looked down at her, this rude little thing with a red puffy face and dragon temper. I had given her everything I could.
‘“Shh thee, thou troublesome,” I said then, “what wilt thou have?”
‘She calmed at my voice. It was the first time, a rare time, that she ever calmed when I spoke to her. For a moment I looked down, too frightened to move and break the spell of her silence, her wide, wet, watching eyes. And then she raised her hands to my face, such little hands, and flailed for an instant in touching. I couldn’t read her mind. I couldn’t guess her thought. But she stopped crying and stopped moving, and only watched me.
‘I risked it. I dared lean down and kiss her. And when I kissed her, and she smiled a rare, first smile, streaked with tears, I knew what was wanted. I had nothing to give her. Nothing, but my life. And in the instant I realized, I knew it was already done. And I thanked God for it.’
Svart had closed his eyes. Caili watched him, intent. For an instant she almost forgot he was a dragon-thing, in seeing how the baby held to him and nestled against his throat.
‘For what?’ she said.
His head turned. It took him a moment to speak.
‘What?’ he said.
‘What did you thank God for?’ Caili asked. Her voice trembled.
Svart reached out to her. This time, she didn’t shrink from his hand, but let him rest his knuckles light on her cheek. His skin was too warm. His injury was wasting him. So she took his fingers in hers and supported his uncertain effort.
‘For taking my heart,’ he said, ‘and binding it to another. For giving me the strength, to bear it.’