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The Babe

Laura Anne Gilman is the Nebula- and Endeavor-award nominated author of The Devil's West, the Locus-bestselling weird western series (Silver on the Road, The Cold Eye, and Red Waters Rising), as well as the short story collection Darkly Human, the long-running Cosa Nostradamus urban fantasy series, and the Vineart War trilogy. Her short fiction has recently appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and The Underwater Ballroom Society. Her work has been hailed as "a true American myth being found." by NPR, and praised for her "deft plotting and first-class characters" by Publisher Weekly, among others.

A former New Yorker, she currently lives outside of Seattle with two cats and many deadlines. More information and updates can be found at lauraannegilman.

The babe was quiet under the padded blanket, occasional milky burps rising, followed by a soft sighing settling, tiny hands fisting restlessly as though reaching for something now far beyond their grasp. He kissed the downy head, feeling the odd roughness of the scalp, the too slow beat of its heart, and pushed forward, the warm bundle tucked into the leather apron he'd repurposed to form a sling against his chest.
He had been walking for nearly a day now, following nothing more than a story, driven by nothing less than desperation. By nightfall, he'd been told. At the first falling of dusk, at the far purple edge of the darkest trees.
He nearly missed it, so desperately focused on staying upright, overly alert to the still-visible rays of the sun dipping below the tree-roof. The babe mewled once, making him look down, and he saw it, the faintest golden sliver of light, as a door slowly closed in the rock.
"Thank you," he told the babe, and slid within, the cold granite brushing against his heel as it shut behind them with a silent click.
The babe sighed again. It had not cried once, not even when it should have. Not even when he had. Now, the weight against his chest was his only comfort, its soft breathing his only truth.
The hall stretched before him, faint bluish lights wound along the ceiling, barely enough to see by. He blinked and waited, one hand over the babe's head as though to shield it. The baby burped again, the last of the milk he'd fed it finally settling in its stomach, and fell asleep, its weight suddenly heavier within the leather sling.
It was cold here, still and cold and smelling of dust and roses.
Far ahead, faint but clear, came the sounds of voices, song and laughter and the occasional clatter and clang of dishes and goblets, and the sharp tinny notes of noise played on something with strings.
It was not courage that drove him, but need. And need would not allow him retreat.
They fell silent when he walked into their midst, elegant hands pausing, pale faces turning, eyes glitter-sharp and avid on his form, like foxes readying to pounce. But they moved away when he did not stop, clearing a path to where he needed to go.
She reclined on a chair made of ebony, her hair the stuff of starlight, her eyes the black of hell; but he had eyes only for the cradle at her feet, a pink bundle within, wrapped in gossamer and fur.
"Human, you come uninvited."
Her voice was the crackle of ice, and the snap of burning wood, and she draped a careless pale arm over her lap, resting her fingers on the ruby-red drape of her gown. He watched her, and he waited, and he did not speak.
She smiled, and he supposed she thought it warm, and sweet. "But still, let us not be inhospitable. You have come such a long way, will you not join us as we dine?"
He shook his head, and looked at the cradle at her feet, the weight at his chest sniffling faintly, as though sensing the change in the air. He could risk no delay, fall to no snare or trickery, to be out before the sun had risen again or lose all hope of freedom.
"That at your feet is mine, which you have taken from me."
She tilted her head to look at the cradle, then back at him, coyly confused. "Yours? I see in you no womb that brought it forth, no breast to suckle it."
"Flesh of my flesh, the bloom of my seed." He had come this far, he had come so far, and he filled his voice with the deep roots of the certainty of this. "The babe is mine, taken from his mother's breast as she breathed her last, and he was not given freely by either of us. You have no right to him, and you will return him to me."
That is what he had been told; that if he stood before the queen and laid claim of blood and law, she would not be able to refuse. But there were tricks they would use, ruses they would employ. Be in with dusk and out with dawn; do not take what they offer, but only claim what is his by right and leave with nothing more.
He thought she might argue him, but a figure to her left moved, a slithering of silver gowns and a whisper like cold wind, and she narrowed her eyes, then laughed, a brightly brittle noise. "And you have brought our payment back, like a merchant ill-satisfied. Well then so be it, hand it back and take your babe."
He drew back, a hand to the leather, and shook his head. "This, too, is mine. You abandoned it without regret when you stole mine. With his mother's last breath she kissed his brow and named him, with the first of her milk, I fed him. I will have them both, my blood and my heart. They are all that is left of my family and you have no claim."
Another whisper swept the cave, sparkling off the glittering points of rock in the walls, sliding across the polished floor, pooling and swirling around the queen, who glittered most fiercely of all.
"Silence," she said, and the hall ceased to have sound at all. She smiled, and it was not a kind smile, but he thought, uneasily, that there was something of... respect, to it. The look a wolf might give to another, if they passed each other in the woods. The thought made him uneasy, but he did not blink nor back down.
"Keep it, then," she said. "The exchangeling has no value to us, once corrupted with mortal milk." It seemed as though she were about to speak further, then flicked those long pale fingers at him, a clear gesture to take the babe, and be gone.
He crouched, careful of the weight he already carried, aware of the eyes on him, and scooped the babe into his arms, leaving the fur and gossamer behind. He could feel the soft warmth of its body, against the cool air, and quickly shifted the leather cradle at his chest to make room for one more.
And then he turned and walked out of that chamber, out from under the stony mound, cautious, exhausted and still mourning, but comforted now by the two tiny heartbeats, one fast and one slow, held warm against his chest.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 21st, 2018

Author Comments

Over on Tumblr, there was a story prompt of a human mother refusing to let go of a changeling child. I was dealing with the anniversary of my father's death at the time, and thinking about the paternal bond rather than the maternal one. And this story tumbled out in a flash, straight from the place where heart and gut get tangled.

- Laura Anne Gilman
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