Author:  Meltha

Rating:  G, at this point.  This will rise rapidly to R as the series continues.

Feedback:  Yes, thank you.

Spoilers:  In this section?  Not a thing.

Distribution: and the Bunny Warren.  If you're interested, please let me know.

Summary:  This is the first section in "The Quartet," which will, if my plans work out, eventually encompass the lives of all four members of the Scourge of Europe.

Author's Note:  I have never been so incredibly nervous about a fic as I am about this project.  Bear with me on this one.  Also, I have waited quite a bit of time to put this on because the chapters are going to take a long while to write.  Perhaps one a month is the best I can offer.  If the story goes a few weeks without being updated, believe me, I have not abandoned it.

Disclaimer: All characters are owned by Mutant Enemy (Joss Whedon), a wonderfully creative company whose characters I have borrowed for a completely profit-free flight of fancy.  Kindly do not sue me, please, as I am terrified of you.  Thank you.

The Alto:  Abigail

1584:  Devonshire, England

            It began in the way all stories begin:  with pain.  The woman's cries echoed through the small room, drowning out the crackling of the fire and the tempest that was breaking furiously against the roof over her head.  Hours passed in this way, the rain lashing against the bedraggled thatch roof, finding its way slowly into the room through a labyrinthine path and pattering onto the dirt floor, turning it to mud.  Suddenly, the sound of the quiet dripping and the rain were the only sounds in the room.  After a long moment's pause of almost preternatural silence, a new cry filled the space, weaker, higher and less coherent than the woman's.

            "Ye've birthed a girl-child," croaked the old midwife in a voice made harsh with years of drink.  "All the same, tis a fine, fair bairn."

            The young woman, her brown hair plastered to her head with sweat, reached her trembling arms forward to receive her daughter.  The tiny parcel of human flesh was given to her none too gently by the old crone, and the mother looked upon her child for the first time, the little one still clotted in the bloody gore of birth.  The babe was like a doll, her eyes flitting open briefly to reveal irises as blue as a midsummer sky. 

            "Call her father in, please," the woman said softly, her hoarse voice barely a whisper.

            "Nay, ye'll not want that, not until ye and the child have prettied up somewhat, methinks," the midwife scoffed loudly.

            "No.  Now, please," she insisted quietly. 

Something in the tone of her voice made the old woman do as she was asked.  With a grunt, she lurched her way down the dark, fetid hallway and into a room where a young, fair-haired man, his forehead pressed against his palms, sat in a battered chair before the fire.  At the sound of footsteps, his head abruptly lifted, his face a mask of anticipation and concern.

"Is she…?"

"Tis over.  Ye haven't a son, though.  She's callin' for ye."

The man rose so quickly from his chair that it was nearly knocked into the fire in his haste.  His feet took him to the room as quickly as thought, it seemed.  When he caught sight of the picture before him, his breath held still.

The fire had nearly gone out by now, and the illumination in the room was dim, the single, cracked and leaking window occasionally flaring with lightning to expose the scene to sharper view.  On the tattered bed lay his beloved wife Rebecca, cradling his firstborn child in her arms.  It should have been a picture of pure happiness and comfort after all the two of them had endured this last year, but something was wrong.

Rebecca was desperately pale, even in this light.  The time of her confinement had been marked with illnesses and complications, yet he'd always assumed that once the child arrived, their child, all would be put right.  The bloom would return to her cheeks again, and all would be well. 

But the room smelled not only of birth but of death.

"Richard," she said softly, calling him back from his thoughts,  "take her."

With feet that suddenly seemed made of lead, he stumbled towards the bed and awkwardly took the baby from her.  Somehow, the small body molded perfectly into his tender grasp, and in spite of himself, he gave the child a bittersweet smile. 

"Rebecca…" he began, but she silenced him with a look.

His wife's breathing grew louder and slower as the minutes wore on, and her eyes were beginning to glaze.  He sat gently beside her on the bed, holding the child tightly, his gaze never straying from the pale face before him.

"Her name is Abigail," she murmured in a voice so soft it could hardly be heard.  "Tell her she is loved. Promise me… she will know… love…"

"So long as I live, this child will be treasured.  She will know her worth, Rebecca.  I swear it."

"She is… pretty… isn't she?" she whispered with a note of pride.

"As lovely as daisies in the spring, my leman.  She'll be a beauty, like her mother," he said with certainty, his strong voice belying the tears that crept into his eyes.

They stayed like that for many long minutes in silence, but by the time the church bells tolled midnight, Rebecca's sightless, staring eyes were gently closed by her husband's hand.  The child wailed aloud as though in grief, and the midwife, used to such endings, merely toddled through the back door drunkenly, intent upon receiving her pay nonetheless in the morning.

Richard kept his word to his wife, cherishing their child with a love rarely seen lavished upon daughters all the days of his life, but those days were cut short.  Not five months after the birth of Abigail, the plague swept through the town like wildfire, cutting a wide swath through the people, especially the poor. 

Richard died upon the third day of his illness, and Abigail, who had escaped the ravages of the disease somehow, was delivered, at his request, to the home of a great lord in London.  The messenger who brought the child to the house bore a letter written by the child's father with a remarkably clear and learned hand, and it was delivered to the lord himself.  After some brief discussion between the master of the house and his wife, the baby was delivered into the kitchens of the house and left to cry on the hearthstone until one of the maids found time to feed her between the chores of cooking and cleaning.

From that day forth, the child Abigail was brought up in the manor house of the lord, a foundling charity child of the plague, raised to be a humble and obedient maid for her ladyship.  Fate, however, had very different plans for the infant girl who would one day come to be known as Darla.