It was the same as it had been nearly fifty years earlier, with perhaps a new coat of white wash on some fences, different children, children of children of children that ran through the streets that Medowin had walked some time ago, and she could see in their faces the faces of their father and grandfathers, and as she passed them and nodded, more than one stopped in bewilderment and awe, wondering at the queenly figure, knowing somehow that they had seen her before, and yet when they spoke of her with one another, not one could agree on what she looked like, be it fair or dark, grey-eyed or brown, tall or short, but each believed her to be royalty, and hoped to one day see her again, so impressive was her presence.
As Medowin headed for the inn, she felt a catch on her cloak, and turned to face an older woman, stooped and grey, who seemed to be falling and using Medowin’s cloak to stand up. She reached out to touch her, smiling warmly, fondly, saying, “A bright morrow to you, goody. I’m sorry if I tripped you up.”
“Are you sorry?” the woman said, almost bitterly, still holding Medowin’s cloak in a claw-like hand. Hers was the face of tragedy and anguish, that of one who has seen more than her fair share of grief. “Are you, witchwoman?”
Shocked, Medowin tried to draw away, but the power in that vise-like grip was more than she’d prepared for. “Are you ill?” Medowin wondered, frowning.
“No; you have tripped me up,” the woman said, her voice lower now, the anguish in her tone directed toward Medowin.
“For that I say, again, I beg your forgiveness,” Medowin murmured, but as she spoke again, she was interrupted by the old crone.
“You will have it, if you can answer me one question,” the woman said, still clutching Medowin’s cloak as they stood there in a bustling market halfway across the world from where Nine Trees was waking to the scent of Laila’s breakfast mealmaking.
“I shall do my best,” Medowin murmured civilly, not understanding the woman’s ire.
“My boy,” the old woman began. “My son. You took him. I know this. You can deny it all you like, but you took him, years ago. More than two score. He was firstborn, and our only son. You took him, and my husband is long dead, never remembering the boy whose eyes were his own. His sisters, girls he helped watch after, would have protected when my husband was killed… they know nothing of him. Only I live and know this loss, thief.”
“Thief?” Medowin said, looking shocked, putting a hand to her own throat, as though to help free her breath, which felt tight.
“Yes, thief, for you have taken away my son from me, and though I have long known of this, I know not of his fate. I ask, witch, thief, perhaps murderess, what has become of him? Where is the boy I carried and sang to? Where is my son? To what end did you spirit him from the hearts and minds of his family? Is he well? Has he had children of his own, and they children? Where is this branch of my family tree you broke away, to leave my heart of it rotted, sick for the loss of him?” the woman wailed.
Medowin was grey-cold with shock and wrath at being spoken to in such a fashion; she beheld the woman, the mother of the boy she’d found so long ago, and taken to be her student and companion. “You were not supposed to remember,” was all she could think to say. “You were supposed to forget.”
“A mother’s love is not forgotten,” the crone said bitterly, still holding tightly to Medowin’s cloak. “You will tell me now, for I am soon to die, and I would have this known to me. I would know of him, of my son, witchwoman, for you have taken what was not yours, and you have left me much bereft.”
“He is well, woman,” Medowin finally answered. “He is well and safe, protected and strong. He has not grown more than five years in the fifty he has been gone,” she murmured. “He is without wife or child, but he is well. Alive and well. Does that satisfy you?”
“It does not, and yet it must,” the woman said in return. “Sarad be praised, for my son is alive and well. For that, I will not beg Sarad to strike you, but neither will I ask of him aid in forgiveness of this wretched thing you have done. Thief. Thief!”
“Begone, old thing!” hissed Medowin. “I have given you your answer, now leave me be. You were made stronger for the giving of your son to me. He was needed in my service.”
“He was needed in his home,” the woman said quietly, releasing Medowin’s cloak. “He was needed in my heart. Your greed and surety in your right to steal of my family makes me weak with anger,” she whispered. “May you seek to keep him always at your side, and may you lose him as I have, but remember him, as I have. May you not forget, sorceress, and may it break your heart each moment you pass a stranger and wonder what his face may have become had he been with you the whole time that you might see his growing. May you lose him, and may you be unable to forget.”
Medowin turned and fled; though she knew the old woman had no power to wield, she quailed inwardly at the display of maternal anger. The crone’s words echoed in her head, a refrain that would not die away, and she called to Nine Trees, summoning him from where he spoke with Laila, wanting him near so that she could soothe herself with his presence, and take heart from his nearness.