Chapter 1

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The dark creeped in around Layne Hershel as she held tightly to her gelding's reins. He knew the road as well as she did, still... it gave her no peace of mind on this trip. More than the dark was making her apprehensive, and the grip of tension in her throat kept her urging the horse forward.

She had been born on this very road twenty-eight years ago this past autumn. Yes, right on the side of the road, near the beech tree that had split due to being struck by lightening that previous spring. That same summer had carried flooded crops downstream and would leave the town nearly starving that winter. Still, they hadn't starved, and her birth had been seen as a thing of heaven - a gift as it were, born under the blooming moon, shining bright on someone that would be the first to touch a generation of villagers from birth to death for the next 67 years.

But of course she didn't really know any of this. All she knew was that she was odd, even if in a good way, and she knew that everyone else knew it too.

Tonight though, she was not thinking of any of this. As she galloped past the beech tree she sent a silent prayer upward that the birth would be uncomplicated and fast. She had already attended two births this week and she was bone tired.

The husband had come for her, beating incessantly on her door until she had rolled from the bed and opened it all in one smooth motion. He had said hurry. And he had said it in a way that made the hair on the back of her head stand out. No first-time mother, Kallie Engle had given birth to five healthy boys in the span of 11 years, and had generally done so with the fervor of all good Irish Catholics. Hard, fast and without any regrets. There was definitely something up by the look on her husband's face, and that she had not caught up with him yet even though she was riding Sully as fast as she dared, was confirmation enough.

* * *

Though Sully was only green broke when she received him as a 3 year old, he had served her well. He was eager and quick, sturdy and an easy keeper — all the things she needed as a traveling companion in her vocation. They were fairly inseparable both because of time and necessity, but also because he seemed to take her just as she was. No wary sideways glances, no crossing of oneself after passing her in the field. It made her chuckle a little, to think of it this way, but he was probably her best friend in the world.

Sully cantered up to the hitching post at the perfect speed, having seen it before Layne, and stood still heaving and lathered while she dismounted mid-stride. She could hear Kallie from there. And she could see her husband and all five stair-stepped sons huddled together on the front porch this moonless September night.

This was not good.

Daniel had been front and center at each of her births, almost a nuisance as he hauled water, boiled it, and offered fresh eggs and cider to keep up his wife's strength throughout each of the five previous labors.

This was definitely not the norm, and went it came to birth, "not the norm" meant trouble.

Layne squared her shoulders and strode up the path to the door, paused for a deep breath then walked inside. Kallie was not making the sounds of labor. She was wailing. That particular sound of loss that made your mouth go dry, thought Layne. She was huddled on the floor by the fire, holding a tiny bundle and rocking back and forth. Lane sat her bag down on the table and moved towards her. Kallie knew Lane had come, and she turned towards her.

"Layne, don't take her from me yet. Please. I need to hold her awhile longer. Please."

Layne sat down beside her and nodded. "May I just see her a bit?" Secretly she wondered if perhaps she could revive the babe, it had happened before that a mother thought her child had been born dead but a few deft motions from Lane had brought them back to pink-fresh life.

Kallie pulled the cloth back from her baby's face, and though she tried, Layne couldn't help but catch her breath. The sight never ceased to shock and sadden her, and even as she saw the beautiful baby lying there, motionless, she also saw that yes... she was gone.

"She came this way, then?" she gently asked.

"She did." Kallie answered.

"I knew it wasn't right. I labored fast and hard like always but she just wouldn't come. I pushed with all I had Laney. Like my own guts might spill out with the babe, but nothing moved. It was like... like... she was tied up inside me. She just wouldn't come."

Minutes passed with only silence and soft sobs, until Lane gently asked, "She is here now, so what did you do?" knowing that the sooner and longer this mother spoke of her gone baby the sooner and more fully she would recover from the loss.

Kallie wiped her eyes with the back of her free hand, the firelight flickering against her tear stained, freckled cheeks.

"I tied a sheet to the firepit post and pulled on it while I bore down. I felt something give, I hit my knees, all while praying the Blessed Mother either take my life or end it... then she came. She hit the floor and I feared that is what had... but no. She has been gone awhile. Hasn't she?"

Layne nodded. She had seen her share of still born babies, and this one had indeed been gone for at least a few hours and likely more.

That she knew this was a source of both grief and a strange kind of satisfaction. Like knowing when a storm is coming, and though violent and damaging it is, knowing it and being right? It was like that.

And she took no pleasure in it.

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