Fiction: The Price of a Word by Laura Jane Swanson

Content warning: stillbirth

Tamsin was sweeping away the last of the spell when the door opened. She squinted against the sunshine, bright even with someone standing in the doorway. Had the mother brought the child back? His fever had broken as soon as the dust of Tamsin’s spell had fallen on him. Surely that was enough. She had held nothing back this time. She never would again.

“Mother?” It was only her own daughter, Wren, back from town.  

Tamsin had no words to ask her to move, not so soon after a spell, so she waved her arm. Wren stepped out of the doorway. Tamsin swept the dust over the doorstep and into the yard. The chickens would kick it up, catching the light like tiny bits of mica, until the magic dissipated. Then Tamsin would be able to speak again.

“Mother, the lord’s heir is at the manor.”

Tamsin ducked and stepped back inside before Wren could see her face. Kier, the heir, had gone to the king’s court twenty years before. Various bits of gossip about his letters home had spread through the village, but that was all the news Tamsin had had. At that moment, she might finally have asked after him, so it was just as well that she had spent all of her words on the spell. She put the broom in the corner beside the hearth and smoothed her expression.  

“At the bakers, they were saying it’s good he’s come,” Wren said. “The lord won’t last more than a few days.”

Tamsin nodded. Kier had no love of the mountainside, or he would have come home sooner. He would stay while his father lived, of course, and for the services. Then he would go back to the city and leave the manor under the steward’s care, as it had been throughout the lord’s illness. All she had to do was stay at home, tending the garden and the chickens and the people who came to her for help. He would never even think of her, and just as well.

***

They were eating a supper of soup with the bread Wren had brought from the village, payment for a charm against mice for the baker, when Tamsin finally spoke. “This needs more onion.” Sometimes the first words after a spell were rough, scraping out as though held back by the last traces of magic, but these came smoothly, ordinary words about ordinary food.

Wren’s reply was lost in the pounding on the door. She shrugged one shoulder in resignation and went to see who needed her mother’s help this time.

The man on the threshold wore deep blue robes and carried a staff: the lord’s wizard, standing in the doorway of the little house on the edge of the wild.  

Tamsin stood. “What’s wrong?”

He held out his hands, palms up, empty. His mouth opened, but then he shook his head. The wizard had used all of his words.  

Tamsin shivered. “I will come.” What could she do, if the wizard had exhausted his power and still failed? But she collected her herbs and her silver bowl. She would hold back not a single word.  

***

The physician himself met her at the gate, the symbols hanging from his chain clinking as he walked. “Thank you for coming.” He beckoned for her to follow him.

It had been a long time since Tamsin had been called to the manor. The physician handled the medical needs of the lord and his staff, and the wizard tended to any magic required. What could Tamsin’s skill with herbs and simple spells add?  

Her fingers ached. She loosened her grip on the bowl and took a breath. The manor smelled of wood smoke even in summer, and of spices and fruit. She remembered coming to the midsummer festival the night before Kier had left. Remembered the bonfire in the courtyard and the berries she had eaten. When she had been called away, he had held her hand for a moment, asked for a promise that she would come back and say goodbye. And now Kier had come home. She looked at the stone floor, following the hem of the physician’s robe.  

Upstairs, the lord’s sitting room was crowded. Staff and visiting nobles murmured to each other and moved about restlessly. Tamsin kept her gaze on the floor, but she felt the crowd turn as the physician entered. Their voices rose a little until he hushed them. “We will do all we can,” he said.

The wizard opened the door to the inner chamber, bowing them through before following. Inside, two people attended the lord’s bedside. Tamsin recognized the steward, of course; she had mended his broken arm when he’d fallen out of a loft as a boy, before he’d come to the manor to work.  he nodded, and he nodded back. His shoulders sagged and the edges of his tight, tired expression said he would mourn the lord as deeply as the rest of the village.  

The other man had to be Kier. His hair was grey, but his spine was straight and stiff beneath a fine jacket. He turned toward the door, and Tamsin quickly looked down. She did not want to see what he thought of her presence at his father’s bedside.  

Her chest was too tight to draw a breath, but her feet kept moving as though they had no need of direction. Halfway across the thick carpet, she lifted her gaze enough to look at the lord himself, lying rigid with pain on the bed. He was breathing too rapidly, clutching at the blankets in spite of the fire in the hearth and the warmth of the evening. He looked at Tamsin. Lines of moisture trailed from the corners of his eyes, though his lips were pressed together too firmly to allow even a whisper, let alone a whimper.  

“I have done all I can,” the physician said quietly, “and the wizard has used all his power.”

Indeed, he was still silent.

“Can you ease his pain?” The physician sounded defeated.

Tamsin didn’t dare speak an answer; the lord needed all the power she could muster.  She nodded.

She set the silver bowl on the bedside table and measured the herbs. She made the ritual gestures, calling earth, air, and sea to the lord’s aid. She gathered her words, as many as she could, until the back of her throat was so full that she felt as though she might choke on them. Still she brought up more, holding back not a single one, until she had to swallow against a cough, until she couldn’t breathe because there was no room for air to get past them. Only then did she light a bit of kindling from the hearth and hold it to the herbs in the bowl. They burned for a moment, pungent and sharp, and the words rushed from her all at once, a shriek that made the flames blaze bright enough to dazzle.

When her vision cleared, the bowl was full of silver dust. She tossed it over the lord.

Would it be enough?  She held her breath again, waiting.

The lord’s breathing eased. His eyes closed, and his lips parted in a smile. “Thank you,” he whispered.

“Thank you,” echoed the steward. He began to brush the spell dust from the blankets as the physician escorted Tamsin from the room.  

Kier said nothing.  

***

The crowd in the sitting room all talked at once. They battered her with questions, but she could only shake her head. Then they turned to the physician, pressing around him so that he was trapped against the door. He waved his hands and shushed them lest they wake the lord, leaving the wizard to escort her out of the manor.

Tamsin climbed the slope toward her little stone cottage, looking for the light from the window shining through the trees. Why did she feel hollow and cold?  She had not expected Kier to speak to her. Their childhood friendship had ended when he had left for the court, and just as well. She was only a village witch, and not even a very good one. She didn’t deserve to be remembered, let alone acknowledged.

Her steps slowed, whispering up the path. The crickets were chirping and the frogs were singing just as they had that midsummer night, when she’d been called away from the manor. Promise you’ll say good-bye, Kier had asked. I will, she had answered.  

Then she had followed the girl down to the village. You have to help my mama, the girl had said. The baby won’t come, and the midwife don’t know what to do.  

And indeed, the midwife hadn’t known. The head’s too big, she had said. All her babies have unholy large heads. And indeed, the girl who had fetched Tamsin did.

The mother was wailing. Tamsin had to help. She had measured the herbs into the silver bowl and she had collected the words in the back of her throat. She had held back just one to keep her promise, to say goodbye to Kier. Surely the rest would be enough.

She had held the flame to the herbs, waiting until it caught. She had let the words shriek forth. The flame had blazed for a single bright moment. She had thrown the silver ash over the mother’s belly.

And it had not been enough. The mother had lived, but the baby had been born still and grey. Tamsin’s single word had choked out, thin and weak, as sorry.

***

She woke in her own bed. It took a moment for her to make sense of Wren’s snoring, that her nearly-grown daughter sat in the rocking chair beside her, that it had been twenty years since the night she had failed at her work. If she hadn’t tried to keep that single word, would it have been enough? Might the child have lived? She would never know. And it had all been for nothing; the word she had selfishly tried to hoard had gone as an apology that had eased nothing.

She held nothing back anymore, not even with the smallest spells. They could take whatever they needed, as much as she had to give. Never again would she fail because she gave less than her all. That meant she had little idea how long her silence would last, especially after a spell as powerful as the one that had eased the lord’s pain.

***

Tamsin was still silent the following night when someone knocked at the door. Wren answered it. Boots thumped on the stone floor. Wren’s bare feet whispered across the threshold. The door closed behind her. 

Tamsin didn’t look up. If it was someone from the manor, there was no more she could do for the lord. She had already given everything she had.

“Tamsin.” The voice was rough, but she knew it: Kier.

He knelt before her chair, head bowed a moment. Then he looked up. She tried to avoid his gaze, but he wouldn’t let her. He was unshaven, hair uncombed, eyes red. “Thank you,” he said. “Father died peacefully, without pain.”

She nodded. She had no words.

After a pause, he rubbed his hand over his face. Then he stood. “I won’t trouble you further.” His shoulders sagged as he started toward the door.  

It was only when he looked back that she saw his grief was not only for his father. Still, she could not speak.  

“You never said goodbye. You promised you would, but you never came.”

Tamsin held out her hands, helpless. She couldn’t explain, any more than she could have twenty years before. It had all been for nothing. She had failed everyone. And she still couldn’t get it right.

“You wanted to, didn’t you?”

She nodded.

“I’ll wait. You’ll be able to explain.”

But how could she tell him what she had done? How could she explain what trying to keep her promise had cost? She shook her head.

His face tightened. “Or not. You don’t have to. But if you want to, I’ll be around.”

If he meant that, if he was staying at the manor instead of going back to the court… Maybe she would be able to explain.  Maybe someday she would have the words.

Laura Jane Swanson holds a degree in biochemistry and has done graduate work in molecular biology and science education. She lives in Indiana with her family, where she dreams of the coast and knits lots of socks. She writes science fiction and fantasy.