She ran, leaving behind the wreckage of yet another life.
She ran, still bleeding, feeling as if her insides were falling out of her body.
She ran, clutching a small furry bundle to her chest. Her destroyer, and the only thing she had left after all of it had fallen to bits.
Should have listened to Irene. Should have killed it in the womb before she had a chance to get emotionally attached. Should never have taken shelter with a wealthy man. Should have demanded more details from Irene than the incredibly vague warnings her lover had given her. Should, should, should.
Irene, Raven concluded, had been jealous. They were not supposed to be exclusive, but a blind woman had fewer opportunities to take outside lovers than a shapeshifter, and Irene could not give Raven a child. They'd tried. Raven didn't seem to be truly a functional male in a man's form -- she could make love to Irene but couldn't impregnate her. It had made any mention of children a sore point, particularly after Irene had predicted that Graydon would not be a mutant and Raven had reluctantly abandoned him. The fact that Graydon was now a young man and Irene was clearly right -- he was not a mutant, and was insanely jealous of those who were -- didn't actually make it better. Irenecould have given her clearer warnings, but hadn't.
So here she was, her feet cut and bleeding because she was so weak she couldn't even shift enough to manufacture calluses, fleeing over rocks because the man who'd been keeping her in high style for the past nine months was a superstitious bastard who thought she was some kind of devil. Another should. She should have picked a man who was actually living in the 20th century and wasn't mentally still in the 13th. Devil indeed.
Of course, objectively she had to admit the baby did look a bit like a devil. He had a pointed tail and pointed little tufty ears and golden eyes just like hers, and the softest blue fuzz covering his tiny body, and she wanted to weep. No failure like Graydon here. Her baby was hers, the first creature she'd ever seen who actually looked like her. She'd grown so used to wearing other people's faces whenever her own would not be accepted, she'd pushed the pain of being unlike anyone else down so far she'd thought it would never come out again, but seeing a baby who was hers and like her broke down all her defenses. The man who'd thought himself the baby's father thought he looked like a devil, but to Raven, he was family, the way Father had never been family, the way Graydon couldn't be family.
She had a baby who looked just like her. This should be the most joyous day of her life. Instead it would probably be the last.
Raven stumbled, and slid partially down the steep rocky hill she was trying to run up. In the distance she could hear the baying of hounds. Her arm was tired from holding the tiny bundle so long. She put him down a moment, just to rest a bit, and he started to cry. Milk stained the front of her nightgown, and she hadn't the strength to shift it, either, or to stop the milk leaking from her breasts.
The sound of the hounds was drawing closer.
She and her baby were going to be ripped apart by wild animals, or slaughtered by slightly less wild animals that ran on two legs, and she didn't have the strength to stop it.
It was not in Raven's nature to accept death. Surely, if Irene had foreseen that Raven would die here, she would have given her a better warning. Surely, Irene would not have been jealous enough to let her die -- suffer a bit, yes, but not die. Surely there must be a way out, if only she could find it. She picked up her son again and started, once more, to run.
For five more minutes she struggled up the hill. And then she reached the top, and could not stop herself from moaning.
A sheer cliff face dropped away from what should have been the other side of the hill, down to a river. If she was stronger, she might have been able to jump to the other side. If she wasn't burdened with a baby, if she had two free hands, she could climb down. If it was merely humans hunting her, and not humans with dogs, she could hide the tiny boy in a tree, and maybe, just maybe, muster up enough strength for one shift. She could misdirect them, claim that she had seen the demon woman and her spawn go over the cliff to their death, except that she couldn't shift the baby. And they would still kill him, even if she managed to take a different form.
She lifted her poor doomed son in her arms. His wide gold eyes looked up at her, unfocused, trusting. Too small, too new, to understand the danger they were in. He would die in minutes, without ever having lived.
Tears blurred her vision. Perhaps she should throw him over the cliff, into the river. Soft baby bones might survive such a fall, as he would certainly not survive being bitten by dogs or shot by an enraged human. She had longed all her life to have someone of her own blood, of her own kind, to belong to, and now that she had him he was going to die, and the question was only whether he died at the hands of his loving mother or a hateful cruel human man. And either way it was doubtful she would survive much beyond him. Giving birth had drained her resources in a way nothing else ever had; her labor had lasted 22 hours, far far longer than it had been with Graydon, and as the baby's head had begun to emerge finally, she'd lost her desperate war with her own body, and reverted to her true form. She was still bleeding from the birth, her vulva felt torn and she couldn't heal it, and the only reason her son wasn't still covered with his own birthing blood was that she'd waded through a stream to hide her scent trail, and washed him there so the hounds couldn't track the smell of his blood. Not that any of that helped, since she was still bleeding herself. She couldn't shift, she couldn't heal, she couldn't save her baby or herself.
She kissed her little boy on his fuzzy blue forehead, and then lifted him up, preparing to fling him over the cliff. At least there was the tiniest chance he might live through that.
It was a woman's voice. Raven turned, too exhausted to feel any greater fear than she was already suffering.
There was a dark-haired woman coming up the hill. Her clothing marked her clearly as a gypsy, though she was lighter-skinned than most of the gypsies Raven had encountered in her life.
"Where did you come from...?"
"Don't do it. Give me the boy. I'll save him for you."
Raven blinked dully. "There's no time. They're almost here."
The woman gestured, muttering something Raven didn't understand -- and vanished. Her disembodied voice came out of the air. "I will make him invisible, as I am. The dogs won't smell him, either. Let me save him."
Mutely Raven held her baby out to empty air, and empty air swallowed him. She saw him for a moment suspended in midair, held by invisible hands, and then he blurred and vanished.
They were almost here. Her son was saved, but if she didn't live she would never see him again. She wasn't sure she would see him again anyway -- she had no idea who she had just handed him to, except that the woman could do what Raven couldn't, and hide him.
She took a deep breath, mustered up all her strength, and shifted.
The pain was horrifying. She didn't scream, only because her vocal cords were in transition and unless she actually concentrated on stabilizing them, all she could manage was a hoarse whisper. And then she stood in the guise of a male peasant, with dirty clothes and a stubbly face.
The dogs crested the hill first, barking confusedly, running around in circles as they attempted to figure out where her scent had gone. Although her base scent didn't, in fact, change between forms -- when she'd had a dog, he had been able to tell who she was no matter what she looked like -- the scent change between a recently pregnant woman who was still bleeding from her uterus and a healthy-seeming man was too drastic for dogs who didn't, in fact, know her well to comprehend. And then the mob arrived, men and women -- but mostly men -- trickling up the hill. And then the Baron, on his horse.
"She went over the cliff!" Raven shouted. "Her and her accursed demonspawn, both! I saw it all!"
This lie was met with enthusiastic approval by the mob, whose individuals cheered or shouted raggedly. The Baron nodded coldly, turned his horse around and rode away, followed in dribs and drabs. Raven followed the group for a few minutes, until she was off the cliff, and then disappeared into the woods.
As soon as they were all past, she sagged against a tree and transformed back. It had been such a terrible effort to hold that form -- anything short of her life at stake, and she'd never have been able to do it. Now, she was no longer bleeding, her breasts no longer swollen, her body no longer torn. Her injuries always healed themselves, at least partially if not fully, when she shifted. But the exhaustion was, if anything, even greater, the rapid healing taking much of her strength from her.
She had to get up and run, but she couldn't. All her strength was finally gone. She slumped down to the ground, dizzy, consciousness seeping out of her.
And there was the woman again, holding her baby son in one arm, offering her the other. "Get up! You can't sleep here; someone will find you. Come with me, I'll hide you."
"Why?" Raven asked blearily, too tired to form the word without slurring.
"Because I know what it's like to be different," the woman said. "I'm Margali. Come on, girl, I'll get you to safety, but you have to hang on just a little while."
Girl. That was funny. Raven was middle-aged, plainly older than the gypsy woman, but of course Margali had no way of knowing that. She let the woman help her to her feet, and staggered. Margali put her free arm across Raven's back and under her armpit, and draped one of Raven's arms across her own shoulders, supporting her. The world turned eerily surreal, flat and almost cartoonish, as Raven stumbled along, held up by Margali. At some point there was a tent, but by then Raven was too tired to see anything very clearly, and the last thing she remembered was her legs giving out under her, sliding finally to the ground.
Something smelled delicious. Raven opened one eye, and then the other. The woman sat on a stool by her side. "Wake up. I have a cup of broth for you."
"I'm awake," Raven whispered. "Where is my baby?"
"Sleeping, finally. I never met such a hungry little thing. He nearly drained me dry." The woman chuckled. "I'll be glad when you're well enough to nurse him."
Nurse him. Raven went cold. Out here, so far from civilization, of course there would be no baby formula... but she could feel how her body had changed as she'd shifted back from a male form. She had returned to her default... which wasn't recovering from pregnancy. There was no milk in her breasts, and she'd never experimented with artificially generating some. Graydon, she'd fed with formula.
Perhaps after she was stronger, she could experiment, see if she could make herself make milk.
The woman -- Margali, that was right -- had implied that she had milk. Raven sipped at her broth. "Did you... you fed him?"
"My own son is three months old. I've got milk enough for them both, though time to nurse both is shorter. And then there's you. You slept for two days, lady; I can't imagine how tired you must have been."
She meant "lady" as "my lady", not the derogatory usage Raven heard in American cities like New York. "You know who I am?" Raven asked.
"I know who you pretended to be. Everyone in the town knows the Baron's wife turned out to be some sort of blue monster." She said the last in an ironic, mocking tone. "I don't know who you actually are, but you are either a witch or you're someone born different from humanity, and if that's the case you have something in common with a witch. If people knew more of what I am, they'd chase me with hounds and pitchforks, too."
"What do you mean? What are you?"
"I'm a witch. How else do you think I hid us all? You saw me turn invisible, after all."
"I thought-- There are people with powers, born with abilities humans don't have. Myself, my friend Irene, others I've met. I thought that was what you were." Magic, Raven had always thought, was superstition, part and parcel of the same deadly nonsense that had just nearly killed her and her baby.
"No, no, I'm a witch. I studied for years to do this. But you don't have the smell of sorcery about you, so I guessed that you aren't. Finish your broth, it'll get cold."
Raven closed her eyes as she sipped. She was still so tired. Perhaps Margali was telling the truth, and magic really did exist. Or perhaps it was some sort of mutant ability and Margali was fooling herself. Did it matter, either way?
When she was done, Margali took the cup. "Sleep well," she said, and despite the uncertainty of her situation, Raven did.
The next time she awakened, she was ravenously hungry. She smelled meat cooking, and got to her feet. The smell seemed to be coming from outside.
Outside, Margali was cooking over a brazier. Two woven baskets sat on the ground, enough of a distance from the brazier that a spark wouldn't hit them and set them on fire, close enough that Margali could quickly reach either basket without abandoning the food she was cooking to be burned. Raven guessed what was in the baskets and padded over to them.
In one basket lay a cherubic human baby, sleeping bundled in blankets. In the other a tiny, thin little creature, covered with soft fuzzy blue. The difference between their sizes was due to their ages, she knew, but Raven's heart still broke at how small her tiny boy was in comparison to the human. She knelt down to the basket and lifted him out. Her baby flung his arms out akimbo, as if startled, his eyes snapping open. Then as Raven nestled him to her chest, his little monkey arms reached to her and grasped her blouse in small fists.
"How are you feeling?" Margali asked.
"Much better. Starving. When will that wonderful-smelling meal you're cooking be finished?"
"Another ten minutes or so. Enough time for you to nurse your baby, if you feel up to it. What's his name?"
All the names she had discussed with the Baron, she rejected for that reason. "I don't know yet. I hadn't had time to name him when I had to grab him and run."
"What is your name?"
Belatedly Raven realized she'd never given the woman so much as one of her aliases. None of her usual fake names seemed to want to come to her lips. "Raven Darkholme," she finally said. Darkholme, of course, wasn't her real name either, at least not in the sense of her birthname, but she'd had it so long it felt more real than the name she'd gotten from her father. Besides, why should she carry the name of that bastard?
"My boy's name is Stefan," Margali said cheerfully. "Yours is very strong, did you know that? What a grip he has! You'd think fewer fingers would make him weaker, but no. I could barely pry him loose from my shirt when I had to open it up to nurse Stefan too."
She wasn't used to nursing. Raven tried to get the baby positioned correctly, and yelped as his gums came down hard on her nipple. "Ow!"
"You need to get the whole thing in his mouth. Not just the nipple, but all around it -- that's where the milk comes from, and it will hurt less. Here, let me show you." Margali stepped away from the brazier, took the baby in her arms, and pulled a shawl away from her shoulder, exposing a plump breast underneath. She set the baby to her breast so the areola was entirely in his mouth. The baby feasted, eagerly gulping.
Raven shifted to Margali's form, wanting to use what she was doing as a reference as much as possible. She took the baby back and imitated Margali -- imitation, after all, was what she did best. But after sucking for a few moments, the baby tore his head loose and wailed.
"Go back to yourself. Perhaps it's confusing for the poor thing, to have two of me."
That couldn't possibly be the problem, or identical twin women would never be able to nurse their babies in the presence of their sisters, Raven thought. But she tried it, with no better success.
"Maybe you need to express some milk first, so he knows what he's getting. He is a newborn, after all. Has your milk come in yet?"
"I was leaking when I was running away..."
"That was the day he was born, wasn't it?"
"Then that wasn't real milk. The first few days you have colostrum -- it's milk for babies who were just born, and then around the third day or so you get the real milk. You can't mistake it, your breasts turn into rocks. Has that happened for you yet?"
Raven shook her head. "I... think I may not have any at all."
"Well, that doesn't make any sense. Let's take a look." She set her food down again and bustled over to Raven. "Now, grasp your breast here --" she demonstrated -- "and squeeze. Milk should... no, here, can I do it for you?"
Margali tried the same thing Raven had just done. Nothing happened, aside from the soreness Raven would expect to feel from having a stranger squeeze her areola in two fingers, hard.
"There's no milk." Margali looked up at Raven. "You've dried up already. I'm sorry, I don't know why that would have happened."
"Because I took a man's shape," Raven said. "When I was pregnant, I was still a woman. Only the color of my skin changed. But when I was trying to throw them off my scent, I took the form of a man... and when I brought my breasts back, they were from before I was pregnant. I can't seem to get my pregnant form back. I didn't expect this to happen."
Margali shook her head. "I'll have to feed him until you can find a wet nurse to hire, or make yourself make milk for him again." She took him back from Raven and snuggled him to her chest. "I suppose that's not so much of a hardship. He is the sweetest little thing. Not as cute as my Stefan, of course, but who could be?" She smiled, making the statement a joke. "Flip over the meat for me, and in another two minutes or so serve it up for the both of us. I'll nurse your little one, since now we've woken him and gotten his hopes up for milk, so he'll cry if he doesn't get any."
Raven did so. "You don't seem to have a husband here," she said, making conversation.
"No. I don't." Margali's tone suggested that the topic should be dropped.
Very well, then, Raven could take a hint. Gypsies were not, as a rule, all that accepting toward independent women -- and Margali lived alone. And declared herself to be a witch. Despite all stereotypes to the contrary, Raven knew the gypsies did not approve of witchcraft -- although they were happy to pretend to it in order to fleece non-gypsies of money, they usually cast out anyone they thought was practicing the real thing -- and they lived in close-knit, large family groups, and women were almost always under the control of some man or other, a father or a husband. Margali living alone, away from other gypsies and with no husband, but plainly sexually active, said that she was an outcast. The high quality of her clothing, the fact that the meat and vegetables she was cooking were good quality beef and fresh non-local vegetables, the size of her tent, all suggested that this state of affairs hadn't harmed her financially. Which implied that she did, in fact, have real power, above and beyond her invisibility trick. A woman living alone and outcast, with money, would be a target. The fact that Margali still had all these things after having been tied down with an infant for three months said she could defend herself.
Which meant she could defend her baby, or any other baby, as well.
Raven served the food for herself and Margali, and ate in silence. Margali talked, to the baby mostly, babbling in cutesy talk. To Raven she made comments about the boy's health, strength, appetite, and adorability. She was obviously quite taken with Raven's son, a reaction Raven would never have expected from a human, but then, Margali was hardly an ordinary human.
Afterward Raven washed the dishes, and then diapered her baby under Margali's direction while Margali fed Stefan. She was feeling much stronger after the food, almost herself.
She held her sleeping son, rocking him slightly, feeling like an alien. Women did these things, women were mothers and fed babies and diapered them and rocked them, and Raven was a woman. She should be able to do this. But when she saw how adept Margali was at it, how loving nonsense spilled from the woman's lips tenderly whenever she held a baby and how skilled she was at going about her business even with a three-month-old attached to her breast, she felt certain she would never measure up. Tears were something her shapeshifting powers could block, so she did not cry, not in front of this woman she had just met. She was very, very good at hiding what she truly felt.
She was a hard, cold creature. Her own mother had been a broken cipher, barely present in her life. She had had nannies, but had never been allowed to keep one longer than a year or two, because her father had disapproved of her getting too attached. Her father had been monstrous. There was no reference in her life for being a good parent, and she'd already failed once -- Graydon had been a genetic failure when she left him, but since she had left him he had become a greater failure than that, hating mutants because she had abandoned him for not being one. She had never really warmed up to him anyway -- his father had been an exciting fuck but a psychotic son-of-a-bitch and she really hadn't liked the guy. Graydon had been an experiment -- what would her child with a mutant be like? And when the answer Irene had given her was, not a mutant at all, she had left him.
Raven loved this little boy dearly. He had her eyes. His blue fuzz was a paler version of the color of her skin. He was plainly a mutant, and plainly hers. But she would be a bad mother, at least in comparison to someone like Margali. She didn't know how to be a good one. She had no role model to draw from, and she barely felt like a woman, at least in the role of domestic and mother. It was one thing to be sex on a stick, another to be gentle and caring, and she didn't think she could do it. Not to something helpless. Irene was as strong as she was; she couldn't hurt Irene the way she could hurt this little baby.
Margali, she thought, would be a much better mother for him. She could nurse him. She could protect him. She could be there for him, which Raven's own work would probably prevent, as it had prevented her from being with Graydon when he was little. He'd have a brother, and a loving and experienced mother, not a stone cold killer who had ruined her last son.
"I'll keep both boys by my bedside, so I can feed them when they fuss in the night," Margali said. "Unless you have an objection. A newborn should feed every few hours, and it's easier for me if he stays by my side."
"No," Raven said. "I have no objection."
She kissed the furry little forehead good night, the way she'd kissed him as she'd prepared to throw him off the cliff, and then handed him back to Margali as they went to their sleeping places. Margali had given Raven her own bed during her illness, and went to sleep snuggled up in a pile of furs on the floor, the two little boys in their baskets beside her.
Raven didn't sleep. When the moon was high and Margali's breathing was soft and even, she padded over to look at her baby. In the darkness he all but disappeared. She wanted to kiss him again, but if he woke it would ruin what she needed to do.
She got up and walked out of Margali's tent, heading back through the woods toward the town. There was a train station in town; she'd steal some money, buy a fare, and head back to the coast of Europe, back to a boat and a way home to Irene in America.
She wondered what Margali would name him.