Flash Fiction Challenge: The Fledgling

I don’t always have the time, or the right story, to participate in Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenges, but this time around I was rather excited to see one of my prompts selected. I felt it would be cheating to use my own, so I chose the prompt: “The first breath shattered her world, the second shattered her heart.” (Fred Yost)

An idea for a fantasy sprang to life in my mind and I ran with it. I had to trim my submission back to within the right word count, but I’m reasonably happy with how the story developed and can see myself turning it into something epic later down the track. Or not — so many stories, so little time. I didn’t know what to call this story, so I’ve gone with something simple (for now).


THE FLEDGLING

The first breath shattered her world, the second shattered her heart. Tears rolled down Sophia’s cheeks as she repositioned the slippery, bloody bundle from between her legs onto the woollen blanket. She turned the newborn on his side and used gentle strokes to wipe his face clean.

The baby opened his mouth wide and mewled, his cries growing louder with every passing second.

“You have a good set of lungs, but you need to be quiet.” Sophia’s tears dripped off her chin onto the blanket beside the baby’s head and she pushed back onto her knees. “What do I do now?”

The scent of pine needles lacing the chill air cut through her thin cotton dress. She shivered and wrapped the blanket over the baby’s tiny form.

Against her better judgement, Sophia lay down on the forest floor, pulled the top of her dress down, and helped the baby find her nipple. She examined the baby’s features as he drank — his pink, wrinkled skin, his long lashes, and the mop of dark hair slicked to his head.

“You get your hair colour from me you know.” She ran a finger over his button nose. “I’m sorry little one, I don’t know if I’ll be the mother you deserve, but I’ll try my best.”

The baby wrapped his hand around her index finger, his fingernails the smallest she’d ever seen.

Her chest tightened as her heart swelled with love for the innocent perfection nestled in her arms.

It had been days since she herself had last eaten a proper meal and her stomach rumbled.

“I’ll call you Connor, after my Pa.”

The baby squeezed her finger and Sophia smiled. 

Both she and the baby fell asleep.

Sophia woke a short time later to a fresh wave of pain. The placenta slid free, releasing another rush of warm fluid between her legs. She unlatched the child from her breast and pushed unsteadily to her feet.

A wolf howled somewhere in the forest.

Sophia shook the pine needles off her coat and slipped her arms through the sleeves, before rummaging through her satchel. She cut the umbilical cord still attached to Connor’s belly with her knife and sprinkled a circle of red droplets amongst the forest litter around them, followed by dried Amaranth leaves over the top. The blood bubbled and seeped into the ground.

The wolf appeared between the trees, pausing to sniff the air.

Sophia picked Connor up, tucking him inside her coat against her chest, and wrapping a belt tight underneath him.

Horses hooves pounded along the dirt road at a fast clop. The lead rider called them to a halt and whistled.

The wolf howled again.

Whispering the words of protection over and over, Sophia clutched her coat and the baby tight. The mists of illusion which rose around her were tinged a strange blue, unlike any she’d conjured before.

The first man venturing into the forest stopped a few trees away. His helmet covered most of his face, but even from the safety of her circle, Sophia could see the scar she’d left high on his cheek months ago. A King’s man and a warlock.

“I know you’re here. My wolf can sense you.” He moved through the trees, slowly passing around her circle and heading away from her. “Caan hasn’t been wrong yet.”

Sophia lowered to her knees and drew symbols in the dirt to modify her spell. The power returned to her body two-fold and she cast an illusion outwards with more strength than she thought she possessed.

The wind increased and the mists spread along the forest floor, engulfing the trees, the men searching for her, and the wolf.

The wolf whined and dashed off through a thin area of undergrowth.

Men ran screaming from the forest, yelling to one other about demons. Another collapsed to the ground, curling in a ball before his companion dragged him back to the road. They mounted their horses and rode away, heading in the direction they’d come from. 

All except the man with the scar.

He stared in her rough direction from the road. “Your impure Magick is strong, but it will condemn you in the end.”

“The Goddess will always protect those who serve her.” Sophia’s voice echoed through the mists.

“Your Goddess is no match for my God.”

“Then you have nothing to fear.”

A tree crashed across the road.

The man’s horse reared and he reined it around. He peered a final time into the forest, then set off in a gallop after the rest of his men.

The circle provided Sophia protection until sleep tried to take her once more. She had to get to Redgate before nightfall. She stuffed the umbilical cord and placenta into an empty muslin pouch, then closed her satchel, swinging it over her shoulder as she hurried between the trees alongside the road.

The first lights of Redgate greeted her sore feet as the last of the day’s sun faded. The small seaside town spread around the bay, and into the green hills beyond. Four large ships bobbed beside the docks.

Rain fell in light spots as the dirt road gave way to cobblestones. The wind whipped Sophia’s loose hair around her face and she pulled her hood over her head. She tucked Connor tighter inside her cloak, and increased her pace through quiet streets to the bakery, pounding on the door as heavy droplets plummeted from the sky in a sheet behind her.

The door swung open.

“Sophia.” Greta’s eyes widened and she ushered Sophia inside, wrapping her in a warm hug.

Connor whimpered.

“Oh my.” Greta held a hand to her chest and loosened Sophia’s coat to reveal the baby, tears rolling down her cheeks as she stroked his cheek. “Where did you find this adorable bundle?”

“He’s mine. I wanted to be here for the birth, but he decided to surprise me on the way.”

“Yours?” Greta’s eyes roamed up and down Sophia’s dishevelled state and she gasped. She bolted the door and waved towards the back of the bakery. “Come. We’ll get you cleaned up and you can tell me everything over some food.”

Sophia let out a relieved breath and followed her sister into the cramped living quarters behind the bakery. The wondrous smells reignited her hunger. She threw the muslin bag with the placenta into the fireplace, where no one could use it to locate her or her child.

Greta took the baby and fussed over him while Sophia cleaned herself with a tub of warm water and a cloth. The borrowed dress and undergarments she changed into pressed against her swollen chest and pinched the excess belly remaining after childbirth, making every intake of breath hurt. 

Greta’s warm brown eyes met hers as she stirred a pot on the stove and held the baby in her other arm. “My nephew is beautiful. Like his mother.”

“And his Aunt.” Sophia braided her hair to keep it off her face. “Where’s Frederik?”

“He’s negotiating a better price for grain at the tavern.” Greta pulled brown curl back into the bun at the nape of her neck and waved at a bowl and ladle. “Help yourself then take a seat.”

Sophia collected a steaming bowl of chicken soup and sat gently on the wooden stool beside a small table. Fresh butter and bread were already laid out, and the smells didn’t do justice to the first salty mouthful of broth to hit her tongue.

Greta took the seat opposite, holding the baby over her shoulder. “Have you thought of a name for your boy?”

“Connor.”

“A strong name for a strong boy.” Greta grinned and ran a hand over the baby’s head. “Who’s his father?”

“A warrior.”

Greta’s smile faded. “And this warrior’s name is… ?”

“Unimportant.”

“Where have you been Sophia? Mama died of a broken heart, believing you were killed in the attack on Trevon. I’ve not heard a word from you in over a year.”

“The priestesses escaped with help from the old King’s guard.” Tears spilled from Sophia’s eyes and she wiped them with the back of her sleeve, the way she wanted to wipe the last year from her memory. “I’ve been running from the new King’s men ever since, moving from one town to the next.”

Greta reached across the table and gripped Sophia’s hand. “I’m your sister. You know you can tell me the truth. All of it.”

Connor grizzled and Greta shushed him to no avail. She passed him back and he settled in Sophia’s arms.

“Who is Connor’s father?”

“I’m tired.” Sophia shook her head and pushed to her feet. “The rest of this discussion can wait until tomorrow after I’ve had some sleep.”

“No it can’t.” Greta stood too, her hands twisting together. “What is his name?”

“Fabian.” It came out a whisper.

Greta’s mouth dropped open and she held onto the edge of the table. “The Falcon? The rightful heir to the throne of Ecros who also happens to be a warlock?”

Sophia nodded, her gaze dropping to the boy in her arms. Deep blue eyes stared back at her.

“I didn’t know who Fabian was when I fell in love with him.” Sophia’s voice cracked when she next spoke. “We parted ways before I knew of the child.”

“The child of a witch and a warlock is forbidden for a reason. Every person with the sight in the kingdom will sense Connor’s growing power and covet it for their own. You should have ended the pregnancy the minute you knew of it.”

“I understood the danger.”

Greta dropped her hand from Sophia’s arm. “You cannot stay here.”

“Will you help me find passage to Achad tomorrow?”

“Of course.” Greta wiped at the tears rolling down her cheeks. “I do not approve of what you have done, but I will not see my own sister, nor my nephew, come to harm.”

The baby yawned, letting out a contented sounding sigh.

“Thank you, Greta.” Sophia smiled sadly and hugged her older sister, knowing she’d made the right choice.

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