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Chapter 1: A Storm Is Coming
Prologue – Farnsfield, Nottingham, England, July 1402
The shriek of a woman flies through the sky, the midnight moon shining brightly upon the grubby hut. Lightning casts its lament across the clouds in the distance; the clamor of thunder rolls ceaselessly onward, a knight of battle against the stagnation of impinging summer. Inside, the screaming young woman digs her nails into the mattress of straw, ripping the haggard cloth. Her large and rounded stomach contracts and she feels indescribable pain as the baby attempts to snap her pelvic bones. She lies in a pool of sweat and -what she does not realize- blood, her black hair sticking to her cheeks and forehead.
“Push, Penelope, PUSH!” Another woman, elderly, coaxes Penelope.
“Oh, God!” Penelope pants. The air seems to shake and vibrate as she cries out against the pain.
The older woman, Ursula, tries in vain to mop the blood away so that she can see the baby as it makes its frightful entrance into the world. A careworn quilt, Ursula’s favorite, is underneath the woman – its corners drip the young mother’s blood onto the floor with slow, steady precision, covering Ursula’s naked feet in its warm embrace.
“Here he comes, Penelope! One more…PUSH!”
One heart-wrenching and impossibly long scream later, Penelope sags back against the pillows. She is exhausted, but waits anxiously to hear the cry of her baby. Ursula holds the baby, a boy, by his legs and gently slaps his back. In a few moments his airways clear and he begins to scream, imitating his mother. Wrapping him in a clean cloth, the woman approaches the bed. "It’s a boy, Penelope.”
The new mother opens her arms to receive the baby. She strokes his face and marvels at the ten little fingers and ten little toes, just as mothers since the beginning of time have lain on the birthing bed, in awe of the life they have brought to the world. As Penelope admires her son, Ursula cleans up the aftermath created by seven hours of hard work.
Penelope speaks to Ursula over the whimpers of the baby, “What do you think about the name Reynold?”
“That’s a perfect name.”
Ursula is distracted by the heavy blood loss that Penelope has suffered, pretending to be attentive and watchful while desperately and silently searching for a way to stop the bleeding. It begins to rain outside; the wind sings the melody of the battle-hardened knight, of the booming summer thunder. There is little denying the fact that it is a bad night to birth a child – a storm, one of the many signs and prophecies of the heavens, holds an ominous connotation. The aging woman gazes at Penelope, a woman she met only this day, after she stumbled into the hut, screaming, “He’s coming, help!”
What Ursula does not know is that she has taken a witch into her home, a woman with much magical power. Superstition and tradition do not tell a hopeful tale for those of magical descent. The mother and child have fallen asleep. Ursula gently lifts the newborn out of his mother’s arms and sits in the only chair in the home. It has been many years since Ursula rocked a baby, her own children scattered across the isle of England, no doubt with many babies of their own. Her eyes begin to close and she drifts into sleep, the storm outside continuing to wash the land.
“Penelope…” Ursula pleads with the young woman, who is lying listlessly on the bed.
It is three days after the birth of Reynold and Penelope has since deteriorated. The storm has not ended. Ursula fears to leave and get help – who would come? Many women do not survive the turmoil and horrors of the birthing bed, but Ursula is determined to see that Penelope lives to raise her son. She selfishly, desperately thinks that she does not want to care for and raise another’s baby, not at her age. Years of ghastly toil in Lord Alfred’s fields have earned her both the small hut in which she resides and a peaceful journey towards death.
Reynold lies in a tightly wrapped bundle in the wooden trunk at the foot of the bed. He has not been held by his mother since the first night and his cries for her familiar voice drive Ursula nearly to madness with sorrow. With what meager supplies that Lord Alfred gives her, Ursula has tried to make Penelope as comfortable as possible. Compassion for the destitute, despairing young woman sustains Ursula’s resolve to do everything to save this woman. Her wrinkled hands tremble as she touches Penelope shoulder.
“Reynold...my baby,” Penelope mumbles and Ursula looks down in surprise.
“He is fine. How do you feel?”
Penelope is fading – the ember of life that drives her body forward in time begins to wilt. The young mother tries to sit up in the bed and fails.
“Please…I need paper…I need to write a letter.”
“You’re much too weak. Rest and you can write it soon.”
Ursula picks Reynold up, cradles him in one arm, and searches for materials. Finding what she needs, she sets it on the bed and lays Reynold in his makeshift crib. It is happening too fast, the inevitable moment of Penelope’s death and Ursula’s resurrection as a mother. The elderly woman props her charge up onto the pillows and hands her the things.
Penelope slowly begins to write her letter - the candlelight sputters across her face. There is little doubt in her mind that she will not live out the night, that she will die with the sound of thunder and rain throbbing on the roof. Her progress is slow, stopping after almost every word to breathe heavily and hope for the strength to hold her son one last time.
“Ursula, please, wax.” Together, they seal the letter. "Ursula…Reynold.”
The baby boy is placed in his mother’s frail grip with Ursula watching closely. She strokes his face and kisses his forehead. Penelope concentrates on the blue eyes of her child that gaze into her own.
Wherever you go, my little light,
Shine brightly into the night –
I will be not far, I stay in your dreams,
‘Til the day you meet me, again
Both Penelope and Ursula weep as Penelope makes her best attempts at a nursery song for her baby. It is the last time he will hear his mother’s voice raised in song. Her voice cracks on the last soft note, the high, sweet tinkling of breaking china. Reynold whines softly, curling closer to his mother.
“Please Ursula…give this letter to Reynold when he turns fourteen,” she pauses for breath. “I’m sorry…take care of him for me.”
There is little she can do but stroke Penelope’s hair and whisper nonsense to the dying woman. The raw flesh of her fingertips seems to burn and she knows that she is stroking the ethereal Death as he cloaks Penelope in his embrace. Loneliness steals into the one-room cottage as Penelope takes her last breaths. Without a word, the new mother dies staring at the child for whom she gave her life.
Ursula picks Reynold up, going to the chair in which she will rock him and watch him grow in the coming years. The letter rests on the bed and though she knows that she can, Ursula does not read it.
Fourteen years later when Ursula, now ancient and frail, hands the letter to tall and handsome Reynold, most of the words have faded and it reads:
My dear one, I’m sorry that
Prince family Lincolnshire
Waves of astonishment and confusion crash into the walls of Reynold’s veins, bending him over, tilting his person until he is on his knees, the letter resting on the dirt floor.
And so, the curse continues.
I'd like to say thank you to my wonderful beta, JChrissy (Jami) for her skills and support! I couldn't do this without her. I'd also like to thank (and credit) TenthWeasleyWriter & academica for their help with the summary.
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Disclaimer: Anything you recognize is property of JKR and everything else is original material.