Magic and might don't mix well. The bill comes due for an old bargain made during a great conflict.
The rain fell gently as it usually did in Greensborough the afternoon that Aerin Quinn welcomed her twins into the world. The soft patter of water outside the stone room where Aerin lay was overwhelmed by her pains and groans as the midwives helped two little lives come bursting into the world. Connor Quinn stood firmly by Aerin and held her tight as she wept joyfully over the birth of their two miracles.
“Call her Afton, because it’s a wonderful afternoon,” the trembling voice of Aerin announced with a laugh as the midwife nestled the baby girl onto her chest.
Connor smiled at the practicality of her choice and spoke the name of his newborn son, “Oren, because of our beautiful pine trees,” as the other midwife placed the boy next to his sister, “No need to be too high minded about it.”
Aerin smiled at his words and held her babies tight. After having some time to take in the sight of his son and daughter, Connor was shooed out of the room by Wendy and Alice the midwives so they could care for Aerin and the twins. They mumbled something about the little ones needing to feed and how Connor was just standing around like a dumb, happy oaf. Outside the room, Connor was greeted by the house servant.
“My lord, shall I convey the message to the town that your wife has had the child?” he asked dutifully.
“Children, Ewan. It was twins!” Connor answered with a chuckle.
“My, that is a surprise! I shall relay the news and have the Great Hall readied for a celebration feast tonight.”
“Thank you, Ewan.”
Connor turned to walk down the hall towards his study when Ewan called out, “Sir, one more thing. A visitor is waiting for you in the Great Hall. I told him you were not receiving visitors today, but he insisted he was an old friend, here to wish you well on this happy day. He left me this as proof.”
Ewan handed over a small, sealed envelope. The wax on the back was stamped with Clan Quinn’s own sigil of a howling wolf and a scepter. “Thank you, Ewan,” Connor said quietly as he took the envelope and walked slowly in the other direction down the corridor towards the prominent, high-ceilinged Great Hall where he received visitors, townsfolk, and others wishing to petition the Lord of Greensborough. He traced the seal with his thumb as he walked, and some color began to drain from his face. Before pushing through the door into the hall, he stopped to take a few breaths and regain his composure. Putting on all the boldness and authority his position demanded, he entered the hall.
A young man wearing simple brown robes stood with his back to the door Connor had entered through. He was looking with great interest at one of the paintings along the wall depicting Greensborough and, more specifically, Clan Quinn's history. The painting he seemed so interested in was the newest addition and showed the Battle of Brigdalia, during which Connor had led forces in a pivotal battle in the War of the Great Divide. No doubt the visitor had heard the oak door open and shut, but the painting seemed to enthrall him. He traced his long fingers over the pictures and then rustled his shaggy black hair as he inspected it. Connor had opened his mouth to address him when the man spoke.
“This was quite a day, eh Connor?” The light, cool voice asked. The man turned to face Connor now and paused on seeing Connor’s reaction to his levity and said, “I hope you don’t mind, but with all our shared… history, if you will… I think I’ll skip all that dreadful ‘my lord’ business. At any rate, I think we both would agree that this painting is quite a bit more glamorous than how it all really played out.”
Connor didn’t speak. The memories of the battle shown in that painting had put a chill in his blood.
“I know I for one am exceptionally glad that our paths crossed that day.” The stranger continued, pausing on seeing the Lord Quinn’s expression, “Come now, why the somber face? I hear your dear Aerin has just given birth, and to twins! Why don’t we celebrate with a drink?”
As the young man crossed the room to Connor, he held up two wooden mugs that had most certainly not been there a moment before, and they were filled to the brim with a frothy liquid. He held one out to Connor and frowned when he did not take it.
“Oh, come now, Connor. It’s simply ale. I have no interest in poisoning the Lord of Greensborough! You are of much greater use alive, I think.”
Connor reluctantly took the mug and after a moment’s pause took a drink. For a few moments, neither of them spoke as Connor waited to see what ill effects might overtake him. But the young man just smiled playfully and shook his head in laughter, “See? I’m a man of my word, Connor.”
These last words were said with a weightiness that finally pushed Connor Quinn to speak.
“Alright, enough of your banter and games. You’ve come to collect your price, right? Well, what is it? Just tell me what you want and be on your way. I’m a man of my word, as well, and I will settle this debt, just as I vowed, but let us be done with it quickly. I’ll not have you marring the joy of this day.” Connor stated loudly and firmly as he placed the mug down on a stone pedestal nearby.
This strange visitor laughed dryly and sneered, “I told you my price would not be a light one. You knew the cost of your victory would be great. But you still don’t really seem to grasp just how difficult the things I did for you were, how much magic I truly performed to bring about the victory at Brigdalia. Magic is not a free commodity, even for one so skilled as I. I paid a great personal toll that day, and I will be compensated fairly.” With this last statement, his unreadable face gave way momentarily to exhaustion. But he quickly collected himself and continued, “As for you, if you had been a bit less brash, less desperate to win, maybe you would have thought for a moment that the price could end up being more than you could bear.”
As these last words trailed off into the hall menacingly, Connor’s face was going white again as he tried to remain stoic and unphased by the warlock’s words.
“The price, my lord,” he hissed, “Shall not be extracted today, and not even by me, sadly. You see, I am in the employ of those much more ambitious than myself, and they have already paid the debt they owed me for my part in that day. Now they have need of that which you promised to give. The unnamed cost with which you secured not only victory in battle but a place in the Lords of the land. They have great plans for Greater Brigda, and your deal with me has made this quaint town a part of those plans. I’m sure you won’t see it this way, but it’s quite an honor, really, to—”
Connor lost his composure finally and shouted out, enraged, “Name it or begone, foul snake! I will listen to your venomous talk no longer!”
Silence hung heavily over the room as the visitor walked over to the wooden throne and sat down, slouching sideways into it.
“Your child,” he said gleefully, letting the words choke all fury out of Connor’s visage, “Oh no, not today. And not both of them. But someday, when my masters are ready, one of your children will be called into our service. The oath you took that day, along with the weight of the conquest you used it to commit, was woven in blood magic that spans generations, meant to imbue your child with a power that will shake the very foundations of our realm. When the time is fulfilled, my masters will call for the child of promise, and he or she will be claimed.”
Rushing across the room, Connor grabbed the warlock by the collar of his robes and pinned him to the floor.
Connor roared as he pressed the warlock into the ground, “Tell me which child! I will not allow my family to come to harm!”
“Ha — have —,” the man choked out, laughing madly, “Have you ever heard of the cuckoo bird?”
Connor blinked, baffled. His grip loosened, but he continued to hold the man to the floor.
“You see, there is a variety of cuckoo birds which do not raise their own young. They lay their eggs in the nests of other types of birds. The mother birds, none the wiser, begin to raise this hatchling as one of its own. But soon, the cuckoo outgrows and overpowers the other chicks, forcing them out of the nest.” The stranger paused, smiled wildly, “You have a cuckoo bird in your nest. The magic has made sure of that. But because you had twins, you’ll never know which one it is until it is time for the payment to be collected in full.”
In a blind rage, Connor leaped to his feet, no longer thinking, just reacting, thinking only of his wife and his infant children as he raced to the side door of the Great Hall. The bloodied man called hoarsely from the floor as Connor rushed from the room, “It’s too late, dear Quinn. What has been done cannot be undone. All that is left now is to wait for the glorious day to arrive. And I can’t wait to see how it all turns out, old friend.”
For a moment, Connor hesitated at the door. “Why tell me all this?” he nearly whispered, “Why not just wait until this mysterious day?”
A vile, venomous hiss of an answer came back across the hall, “The children are the price paid to my masters. To curse you with knowledge and watch you suffer for years to come? That is the price you pay to me personally.”
Quinn looked back at where he had pinned the man to the floor, but the warlock had vanished. Connor cursed loudly as he ran out and down the hall to his and Aerin’s bedroom. Flinging the door open wildly, he startled Aerin so badly she nearly dropped the baby’s she was preparing to nurse.
“Are you alright? Has anyone strange been to visit you? Did they hurt you? ” Connor rapid-fired his questions as he frantically searched the room.
“Connor! Connor!” Aerin shouted, her tired face washed in fear and confusion, “What are you talking about? No one’s been here but you and the midwives.”
His breathing was heavy as he looked back and forth around the room, his mind racing for a lie valid enough to warrant his mania. “I thought I heard someone running through the halls. I was worried someone had come to hurt you,” he lied.
Aerin’s face softened, “You don’t need to fret over me, I’m fine, if not a bit startled. It’s not easy feeding two babies at the same time, you know. So out, love, so I can feed them and finally rest. Wendy and Alice will be back with more water and some food for me at any moment. I’m alright. Really.”
As if on cue, the door creaked and the midwives reentered the room. Connor tried to put on a genuine smile as he walked over to Aerin’s side and gave her a kiss before leaving the room.
“Sorry dear, I’m just so excited, I guess I just got a bit overwhelmed with it all,” he said as he quietly left the bedroom.
Checking the Lord’s Hall to confirm that it was, in fact, empty now, Connor made his way back to his study, where he collapsed into this chair and began to weep. He would spend the next several hours just processing the conversation he had just had with the warlock, but he would spend years and pour countless resources into uncovering the meaning behind it all. Most of all, he knew even in those hours after the haunting visit that he would stop at nothing to discover which of his children had been bewitched, and short of that, he would do anything to prevent them from being used for any treacherous devices. Afton and Oren were Quinns, after all, and Quinns were masters of their own fate.
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