Anna walked slowly across the snow-covered path; waddling was more like it. Her body, gravid as it was, would not move as gracefully as it used to. Anna didn’t care; she felt restless and needed to move around. One hand on her abdomen, the other stretched out to control her balance, she made her way down to the river, taking deep breaths to fill her lungs with fresh air.
It was early in the morning and she had quietly left the house to have some time to herself. During the last few sennights, Zarit had been constantly at her side, making sure she would not lift anything heavy. Anna had complained, but to no avail. Her husband Sarim only laughed and told her to rest. Any argument with Zarit at this point was futile. Anna had learned long ago, that Zarit was stubborn and would not give in when she believed something was in Anna’s best interest.
Anna sighed inwardly. A little bit more freedom was all she wanted. Zarit, on the other hand, liked to know where everyone was at any given moment. It had been that way ever since Anna had come to live with her and Jerel after her guardian Tobias had died. How proud Tobias would be of her. If only he could see her now, hand fastened to Sarim and pregnant with her first child. Forgotten was the time she had spent with Sarim’s parents and the warning her father-in-law had given her on the day she had left with Sarim to return to Zarit. Forgotten was the story about her ancestors and a curse cast several generations ago. Sarim had calmed her, told her it was just a story with nothing m ore to it than coincidences and Anna believed him.
Anna stopped for a brief rest, one hand against a tree trunk to keep her balance. When she heard footsteps behind her, she turned.
“There you are, Anna! I was wondering where you had gone this early in the morning.” Quickly, Sarim covered the distance between himself and his wife and embraced her gently. “I am going hunting with Jerel; we should be back by nightfall.”
“Good hunting, my love.” Anna kissed him and watched as he hurried to catch up with Jerel, who waved from afar.
Anna continued on her way to the river, her restlessness increasing. Suddenly, she felt a wave of pain traveling through her abdomen. A look of surprise on her face, she took in a deep breath and waited for the pain to subside. Shaking her head, she continued to walk. Her midwife, Rebecca, had told her the day before she’d have at least another fortnight before the baby was going to come. Could Rebecca have been wrong? Sarim had only left to go hunting because of Rebecca’s forecast. A second wave of pain made her halt and lean against a tree to steady herself. Before she could go on, the pain came back, and she realized her time had come. Careful not to slip, she waddled back to the house, interrupting her walk each time pain overcame her.
“Zarit!” she called out as she reached the house, “Zarit! It’s time!”
“I can see that,” Zarit remarked and stepped outside to aid her. Gently, she guided her in and helped her take her coverings off. “I am going to fetch Rebecca. I won’t be long.” All Anna could do was nod briefly, as another wave of pain traveled through her abdomen.
Zarit’s and Rebecca’s patience was put to the test as Anna’s labor progressed. By midday, Anna was screaming and yelling with every contraction. In between, she was moving around restlessly.
“How much longer, Zarit, Rebecca? Please, make it stop!” Anna pleaded, exhaustion showing on her face. “I can’t do this anymore.”
“You’re close,” Rebecca answered calmly before Zarit could say anything. “It’s your first child, but you’re making good progress.”
“Just get it out of me,” Anna yelled as another contraction started.
“Remember to breathe,” Rebecca instructed, putting one hand on Anna’s shoulder and the other on her back for a gentle massage.
“There’s so much pressure,” Anna said after the contraction had stopped. “I feel like I’m tearing apart!”
“Then it’s time for the baby to show itself. Remember what we talked about?” Rebecca looked at the young woman. Anna nodded, a scared look on her face.
Zarit placed her hand on Anna’s abdomen. “It’s starting, Rebecca,” she informed her.
“Anna, take a deep breath and bear down,” Rebecca instructed.
“No more talking,” Zarit interrupted. “You need all your strength to push the baby out.”
“Push, Anna, push!” Rebecca reminded her several contractions later.
“It … hurts! Zarit! I … can … not … push … any … more.” Anna squeezed each word between breaths. Pearls of sweat collected on her forehead.
“You have to, come on, I can see the baby’s head. You are almost done.” Zarit wiped the sweat from Anna’s forehead and offered her a sip of water. “You can do it!”
“Noooooooooo,” Anna screamed through the next contraction.
“It’s a girl, Anna,” Rebecca held the baby up for Anna to see and then placed her into Zarit’s arms, who wrapped her into a blanket. “Good work, Anna, she’s a fine lass.”
“Let me hold her, please,” Anna asked and stretched out her arms. Zarit placed the wrapped bundle in her arms.
“She is beautiful. Look at all the black hair!” Anna placed a kiss on the baby’s forehead and smiled, then handed the baby back to Zarit.
“I –” Anna began, but interrupted herself, surprised when she felt a kick inside. “Zarit! Rebecca!” her voice sounded frightened. “Something is kicking me inside.”
Rebecca placed her hand on Anna’s abdomen and felt movement. “By Stevene! There is another baby!”
“You mean I have to do all this again?” Anna whined.
“It will be easier,” Rebecca assured her.
Two bells later, a little baby girl was placed beside her sister in a crib next to their mother. Anna turned to her side and looked at the babies with pride. “Where is Sarim?” she inquired looking at Zarit.
“He went out hunting this morning with Jerel, remember? The men should be back shortly. It’s almost nightfall. What do you want to call your babies?”
“Simona and Megan!” was Anna’s quick answer. She grinned. “Sarim wanted to call the baby Simona in case we had a girl; I wanted to call her Megan. I wonder what he’s going to say about two daughters.”
Zarit let out a brief laugh. “I guess he’ll be quite surprised, because I think he was counting on having a son.”
“I just wish Tobias was here to see them.” Sadness showed on Anna’s face as she remembered the man who had given her shelter and a home after her mother had died. She still missed him. His tragic death on the day of his return from Dargon had left her orphaned again. Zarit and Jerel had taken pity on the child and let her stay with them.
“Megan was your mother’s name, was it not?”
“I think she was called Meg, Zarit. I don’t remember too much of her anymore. You know, I still wonder if Tobias ever found Drew. I should have gone with him.”
“You were too sick then, Anna. When he brought you to us that day, you didn’t know what was going on around you, and Tobias said he had to leave for Dargon the next day. You should put the past behind you. You have Sarim to take care of you and two little girls to look after. Just imagine Sarim’s surprise when he finds out he has not one but two daughters. Now rest!” Zarit smiled and tucked the covers around Anna.
“You are right, as always,” Anna smiled and then remembered. “I got the answers Tobias was seeking after meeting Sarim’s parents. I –”
“Go to sleep, Anna,” Zarit interrupted. “You can tell me later.” Dutifully, Anna closed her eyes and fell asleep.
Cold, tired, and hungry, Jerel reached his house. Carefully, he placed his heavy load into a large crate in front of the house and covered it, making sure animals would not be able to disturb it. He shook the snow off his outer coat, scraped his boots, and entered.
“Welcome home. Did you have a good hunting?” Zarit greeted him excitedly. “I’ve got some wonderful news for you. Just wait ’til Sarim comes in. I can’t wait to see the look on his face when …” Zarit halted when she noticed Jerel’s face was ashen and had a grim expression. She hesitated for a moment then asked, “Where is Sarim?”
Jerel swallowed hard, fighting back tears. “There has been an accident, Zarit. He will not be coming back.”
Zarit stifled a cry. “By Stevene! What happened?”
“Where is Anna?”
“She is sleeping. She had twin girls about two bells ago.”
“Twin girls,” Jerel repeated, shaking his head. He sat down and buried his face in his hands.
“What happened out there, Jerel?” Zarit placed a mug with hot brew in front of him. He looked into her concerned face and took a deep breath.
“Zarit, I tell you, that was the most vicious attack of shivarees I have ever seen. I still don’t know why they attacked to begin with. One moment we were inspecting and resetting our traps and the next they were upon us.”
“Did you get hurt?” Zarit began a closer inspection of her husband’s arms, but Jerel stopped her.
“I’m not hurt. It seemed they just focused on Sarim and ignored me completely. I took out six of them, yet more kept coming. After Sarim fell down a ravine, they just disappeared.” Jerel shook his head, ran his fingers through his hair and then let his arms drop. “I tried to get him out of the ravine, but by the time I got down, he was dead.” Jerel choked back tears. “What am I going to tell Anna?” He had spoken softly and cast a worried looked toward Anna’s room.
“She’s asleep,” Zarit assured him, got up and stirred the stew she was simmering over the fire. “The poor child,” Jerel heard her muttering. She turned and he could see tears in her eyes.
“You tell her the truth! No need to lie. Anna is strong, and sooner or later she will find out anyway.” Zarit placed a bowl with stew in front of Jerel and joined him at the table.
Jerel moved his spoon back and forth in the stew, then forced himself to bring a spoonful to his mouth and eat it. Glancing at this wife, he noticed she had not touched her food.
“I can’t understand it. What would prompt shivarees to attack without provocation?” Jerel pondered his wife’s question, but failed to answer her.
“I don’t know,” he responded quietly. “I have never seen anything like this happen before. It took me the better part of the afternoon to retrieve his body and bring him back. I don’t understand why the shivarees let up once he was dead. Usually they make a feast of their prey. It’s like they were bewitched or something.” Jerel wiped his face with his sleeve to hide the tears he was unable to stop and then buried his face in his hands again. He didn’t want his wife to know just how much he was hurting inside; didn’t want her to see how guilty he felt for surviving the attack unscathed when Sarim lay dead. And then he asked the one question, which had been bothering him on his way home.
“Do you think it has something to do with the curse Anna mentioned after she returned from Tench?”
“Don’t say that Jerel!” Zarit looked scared.
“I am sorry Zarit. I didn’t mean to scare you; it is just that …” Jerel fell silent.
“It is just what?” Zarit wanted to know.
“It all seems to fit into what Sarim and Anna told us. The birth of a daughter and the death of the child’s father on the same day.”
“Straight. But Sarim also said that it’s just coincidences, nothing else. And Anna had twins, remember?”
Jerel nodded. “I wonder …”
“Never mind. We need to arrange for a cremation. The ground is frozen solid.”
Zarit only nodded in agreement. Silently, each stirred their now cold food without having a bite.
In the adjacent room Anna woke up. The silence in the house was unsettling. Usually Zarit would move around doing one thing or other and the noise she created had always been of great comfort to Anna.
“Zarit?” Anna called out, “Are you there?
“I’m here, Anna,” came a soft reply, “I shall be there shortly. Is there anything you need?”
“Is Sarim home yet?”
“No Anna, he is not,” replied Jerel and walked over to her bed. “I …”
“What is it?” Anna saw Jerel’s expression and felt the blood drain from her face. She was very afraid. “Where is Sarim?” she inquired hesitantly.
“You have to be brave now, Anna,” Jerel began, choking back tears. He pulled a chair next to Anna’s bed and sat down. “There has been an accident.”
Anna listened quietly to Jerel’s account of the day, yet not really hearing what he was telling her. Just this morning she had kissed Sarim good-bye and wished him happy hunting. Sarim couldn’t be dead. Any moment now he would walk through the door, laughing, saying this was just a cruel joke. He would pick up his daughters and tell her how proud he was of her. Then he would sit next to her, looking at his girls, kissing them, gently touching their soft skin. No, Sarim was still out there, just late. Any moment now he would burst through the door, already having heard the news about his twin girls from their neighbors. He was just late because everyone stopped him to send well wishes. Any moment now …
“I’m so sorry, Anna,” Jerel finished, tears in his eyes.
“What’s keeping Sarim from coming in?” Anna asked. “Jerel, tell him to come in and see his daughters!”
“Anna, he’s not coming. Sarim’s dead!” Jerel shook her gently by the shoulder. “His body is right outside.”
“Tell him to come inside and warm up. He shouldn’t be standing out in the cold!” Anna replied, getting ready to get up and tell Sarim to come inside herself.
Jerel stood up. “I’ll go get him.”
Anna settled back into her pillows. Any moment now Sarim would walk in. Expectantly she watched the door. Menes passed, yet the door was still closed.
“What’s taking Jerel and Sarim so long, Zarit?” Anna asked impatiently.
“Jerel went to fetch one of our neighbors to help him bring Sarim inside,” Zarit replied, wiping tears from her face.
“Why are you crying, Zarit?”
Zarit stepped next to Anna’s bed and sat down. “Anna, haven’t you been listening to Jerel? Sarim’s dead. He was attacked by shivarees and fell down a ravine.”
“Jerel said Sarim is right outside!” Anna insisted, refusing to believe her beloved was dead. “He went to get him.”
“Anna …” Zarit began, but was spared further explanations when the door opened and two men carrying a large board between them entered.
“Sarim! You …” Anna shouted joyfully, then stopped mid-sentence when she realized who was laying on the board. Disbelieving her eyes, she got up slowly and walked over to the table where the men had set down the board.
“He’s hurt, Zarit. Come, help me take care of his wounds.” Anna reached for a clean rag and a bowl of water and began cleaning Sarim’s face.
“Anna! There is nothing you can do for him.” Zarit spoke softly, touching Anna’s shoulder. “He is dead.”
“Noooooo,” Anna yelled angrily, “He is just sleeping.” She insisted and began shaking Sarim. “Wake up, Sarim! Wake up!” One of Sarim’s arms slid of the board and hung lifelessly from his side. Anna reached for it to place it on his chest. The coldness of Sarim’s hand startled her. She held his hand between hers trying to warm it, pressed it against her cheek. Finally, reality sank in. “Sarim …” She whimpered, letting go of his hand. “Sarim!”
Zarit guided Anna back to her bed and insisted she drink a cup of warm milk. Obediently, Anna took the cup and emptied it. Sarim was dead. He would not come back to her. He would not see his daughters. He would never again hold her and tell her he loved her. Anna barely reacted when Zarit made her lay down and covered her with a blanket. Sarim was dead! Anna pulled the covers over her head and sobbed uncontrollably. She did not hear Zarit when she picked up two wailing babies, nor did she notice when they were brought back, sleeping. Several bells later, exhausted from crying, Anna fell asleep.
A gentle shake woke Anna the next morning. She turned and slowly opened her eyes. Zarit was standing next to her bed, holding a mug in her hand.
“How do you feel, Anna?” Zarit looked concerned. “I brought you a mug of milk.”
Anna managed a slight smile and reached for the mug. Hastily she emptied it to the last drop and handed it back to Zarit. “Thank you. I feel so empty. I …” She turned her head, choking down tears. “Tell me he’s not dead, Zarit. Tell me he’ll be back any moment now. I want him to come back!”
Zarit sat at the edge of the bed, took Anna in her arms, held her tight, and rocked her gently. “I am so sorry,” she whispered in Anna’s ear. “I know you want him to come back, but he won’t. You have to be strong now, Anna. You have to be strong for Simona and Megan.”
“I can’t!” Anna sobbed.
“Yes, you can! And Jerel and I will help you.” Zarit promised, holding Anna in her embrace until her crying quieted down.
The cry of a baby drew Anna’s attention. She took a deep breath and wiped her eyes dry with the back of her hand. She watched as Zarit picked up the crying infant.
“Time to feed your daughter, Anna.” Zarit handed her the little bundle and assisted her as she put the baby to breast.
“She is so tiny, Zarit,” Anna remarked as she watched her little girl nurse. Gently she touched the baby’s head and cheek. “And so soft. Is that hair of hers red?”
“Looks like it, Anna, though the other baby’s hair is black. May change though. You’ll know in a few cycles. Are you hungry?”
“Not really, just thirsty.”
Zarit reached for a mug and filled it with water. “I shall also make a brew with the herbs Rebecca left for you. They will help with your milk. I have some stew ready. Just need to warm it.”
“I’m not hungry. Where is Jerel?”
“He went out with the others to gather wood and set up for tonight.”
“What is happening tonight?”
“Anna, Jerel brought back Sarim’s body.” Zarit returned to Anna’s bedside. “We have to cremate the body. The ground is frozen solid. Otherwise we will draw shivarees or worse.”
“I want to see him one more time!” Anna demanded in a voice that would not take a denial of her wish. “I need to know, need to see …” she broke up, crying silently.
“All in due time. First you need to feed your babies and eat something yourself, then we need to get you cleaned up and dressed.”
Zarit’s tone of voice made it clear that she would not take any arguing either. Anna finished nursing her daughter and placed her back in the crib. When her other daughter started wailing, she proceeded to feed her, looking at her with the same admiration she had for her other daughter.
Anna had spent the better part of the day readying herself for the moment Jerel would bring in Sarim’s body so they could prepare him for the funeral. Yet when Jerel, with the help of a neighbor, carried the lifeless form that had once been her husband inside, she broke into tears.
“Sarim! Come back, Sarim! Don’t leave me! Sarim, please!” she sobbed and placed her head on his chest. Several menes later, she felt a hand on her shoulder.
“Anna, we need to prepare the body,” Zarit said softly. “Our neighbors are almost done setting up outside.”
Anna shrugged the hand off and straightened herself. Together the women set on their task; Anna with a grim expression on her face, Zarit with a worried look every time she glanced at Anna. Despite the mauled state of his limbs and body, Sarim’s face had not been touched by the shivarees. Anna took a rag and cleaned his face.
“I want to be alone,” she said, turning to Zarit.
“Anna, –” Zarit began, but Anna interrupted her.
“Please, I need to!”
With a nod, Zarit gave in. “I’ll go and get Jerel. I’ll let him know we’re done.”
“Thanks,” Anna replied softly. She handed Zarit her shawl and waited until the door closed.
“Why, Sarim? Why did this happen?” Anna muttered and reached out, closing the distance between her and her husband’s body. Gently, she placed a kiss on his forehead and held his hand one last time. Next she went to the crib and picked up her sleeping daughters.
“Look, Sarim! Look at your beautiful girls. They were born the day you died …” Anna’s face went ashen. “They were born the day you died, Sarim,” She whispered more to herself than anyone else. Anna held on tight to her babies as she staggered towards their crib to put them down. She needed to leave the room. Wrapping her shawl around her shoulder, she stepped outside into the cold winter air. It felt good to be outside. She watched as her neighbors finished building a wood stack, setting torches at each of its corners without realizing what it was for. Her thoughts circled around one understanding. “The girls were born the day their father died.”
One of the neighbors and Jerel returned, Zarit not far behind. A young girl followed her eagerly. Anna, however, wasn’t noticing anything.
“Anna, it’s time,” Zarit’s gentle voice shook her out of her thoughts.
“Time for what?” Anna replied confused.
“The funeral. Remember?”
Anna nodded. “Who will watch –?”
“I’ll watch the babies. Mama says I’m good with babies,” the girl interrupted. Anna looked at her and recognized the face, but couldn’t remember the girl’s name. Before she could ask Zarit, Jerel and their neighbor emerged, carrying the board with the now covered body.
“Take good care of the babies,” Zarit said and sent the girl inside. Then she reached for Anna’s arm to give her support.
Anna and Zarit followed the men to the funeral place. Soon the body was laid upon the wood stack and Jerel began to speak. Anna barely listened to Jerel’s praises about Sarim. When Jerel handed her the torch to set the wood stack afire, she carried out her task methodically. She missed the concerned looks exchanged between Zarit and Jerel as well as some of her neighbors.
When Zarit finally asked her what was wrong, Anna whispered, “The girls were born the day their father died. Just like my mother’s father died the day she was born, my grandmother’s father died the day she was born, and her mother’s father before that. It all happened just as Sarim’s father said it would.”
“Anna …” Zarit pulled her close.
“I’ll find a way to end this curse,” Anna vowed, moving away from Zarit. “I will find a way!”