Purple storm clouds and crackles of lightning swept over the moors. Bolts of white and violet snapped from the clouds like snake tongues melting the darkness. For a brief moment, the night became a curtain. It swept back to reveal a stage of backlit silhouettes. If there had been an audience they would have glimpsed gnarled shrubs, a ribbon of roadway, and a running figure.
The figure ran hunched over with a lump on his back. Each time the thunder boomed overhead he jumped a foot into the air, flailed his arms, and shook a fist at the sky. Then he dashed water from his eyes and kept running. Once in a while, the rain slowed, as if taking a gasp of air before pelting down harder. During those spells of quieter noise, Rennington Chadwick could hear his shoes squelching between his toes and the hush hush of his clothes sticking to his skin. He hitched the lump on his back higher, screamed a few profanities, and was again drowned in rain.
Renn hated getting wet. He had that in common with cats and humans infected with rabies. He bathed because he had to, choked water down like medicine, and dreamed of one day moving to the Mortavi desert. He also disliked watermelons, moist cakes, lakes, rivers, streams, puddles, and babies (they drool, vomit, spit, suckle, and urinate at whim). The only fluids he didn’t mind consuming were alcohol and goat’s milk.
Running through the moors that night, Renn was not only drenched to the bone, but he was also carrying a baby on his back. It had not stopped screaming since he’d slung it onto his spine. The baby had further tormented him by smacking him in the neck with its fists and then jerking on his hair. As much as Renn hated the rain, it gave him one thing to be thankful for: he was so soaked that he had no idea if the baby had pooped, peed, or vomited on him yet.
Snake-tongue lightning dissolved the black in another stage-light flash. This time Renn stuck his neck straight up and hollered in delight. He changed his course, toiled on for a few more minutes, and ran nose-first into a wooden doorway. Renn pounded on it with all his might. “Open up!” he yelled.
Just when he’d begun to despair, the door swung open. Renn jumped inside. He felt displaced air rush past his ear and then the rain and thunder faded to a dull roar as the door closed behind him.
“Who are you?” said a voice.
“Don’t you have a lamp or a fire?” asked Renn. “I’m drenched. I feel like a drowned rat. What a wretched night. I thought I was going to drown breathing. Nice of you to open up for me. Could I get a hot drink by any chance? Or a blanket? I’m chilled through. My teeth are chattering so hard I’m afraid I’ll bite my cheek.”
He couldn’t see anything, but the space felt close and warm. It smelled of earth and onions and a fireplace. As for the voice, it came from his right, but he couldn’t tell its age or what kind of person it belonged to.
When it made no reply to his comments, Renn took another step into the room. “Ow!” he yelled. The baby had reached forward and given him another bald patch. At his shout, it began to wail and jerk on his back.
A match flared to life, traveled in pinched fingers to a wick, and grew into a bright glow as the lamp caught fire. “Take the baby’s wet things off,” said the voice. Before Renn could get a good look, the owner of the voice vanished into the shadows beyond the lamp.
Renn shucked the baby from his back, peeled its clothes off, and laid it like an upended beetle on the table in front of him. The lamp’s flame strengthened, revealing a simple room with sod walls and a hard-packed earth floor. Dried onions and wild herbs hung in bunches from the ceiling.
“Wrap it in this,” said the voice. It belonged, as Renn now saw, to a woman over six feet tall, big-boned, contoured with muscle, her eyes as fierce with light and dark as the storm outside. Renn swallowed, took the blanket, and rolled the baby in it like a sausage. It continued to scream. “Do you have any warm milk?” he asked.
The woman vanished into the thick shadows of a far doorway, returning several minutes later with a bulging skin. It warmed Renn’s hand when he took it and he guessed she had milked a goat to fill it. “Perfect,” he said. “Thanks.” Then he pulled out the stopper, threw his head back, and downed the whole thing in one long luscious chug. He finished, wiped his lips, and sighed as the hot liquid filled his belly.
The baby continued to scream.
“Do you have any clothes I could borrow?” asked Renn. “Or a fire I could hang mine in front of to dry? It’s wretched being wet. In fact, I hate it very much. What is that baby going on about, I wonder? At least it has a blanket. Do you have an extra? Are those things hanging on the wall sausages? Did you make them yourself? Could I have one? That milk made me hungry. Don’t talk much do you? What’s your name? I’m Rennington Chadwick the first, but you can call me Renn.”
The woman didn’t say a word for a long moment but kept her storm-crackling eyes honed on his face. It might have made him uneasy, but he was so soaked he could not feel any more uncomfortable than he already was.
“Where did you get it?” she asked. She spoke slow and soft, yet the words clapped his ears like thunder.
Renn winced and shrugged. “The baby? Well, I was in town. Stopped in at Boorman’s Bar for a bit of roasted moor pig, and there was a gambling session on. There were a few others at the table already, a big man with scars, a skinny boy with giant ears, and a woman with silver teeth. I bet a sack of magical frogspawn guaranteed to cure scurvy, dyslexia, and diarrhea. The woman bet a half-nugget of camphor, the ear boy a knife made from the tooth of a cukabara, and the scar man a baby sultan. I won.”
“How did you end up out here?”
“Oh,” said Renn. He coughed a little. “I tripped on the way out of Boorman’s and my trick dice and the fake frogspawn fell out of my pocket. It would have been fine but ear boy hollered about the dice and the woman realized the frogspawn were actually earwig peppers. Then scar man tried to tackle me. I got my dice back but not the frogspawn, and I wanted to leave the baby but I couldn’t slow down enough to get it off my back. I didn’t want to lose the camphor or the knife and I might be able to get a ransom for the baby sultan if I can figure out how to do it. But right now I’m so cold and wet I’d be glad to trade it for dry clothes and a blanket and a sausage. What do you say?”
“I’ll have to consult with my sister,” said the woman, “just as soon as she gets back.” Then she grinned at him, showing two rows of gleaming silver teeth.