The trade-off

Alissa came out of her exhausted sleep without knowing why. Then she heard it, the whimpering of her infant daughter. She knew the noise, the one her daughter made when she was hungry, but not so hungry that she would give full vent to her tiny but amazingly loud voice. Beside her, Ulrik, her husband, slept oblivious to the impending storm. Both of them had so looked forward to their first child, but the dreams of a baby were far different from the reality of one. Neither of them had slept a whole night since the birth, and each struggled to carry out the tasks each day threw at them.

Another, louder, whimper brought Alissa’s mind to what she needed to do. Pushing the covers aside, she moved to the edge of the bed and stood. Behind her, Ulrik stirred and she heard him blurringly speak her name. She hoped he would be spared waking fully and did not reply.

Her daughter rested in a crib near her parent’s bed, hardly three steps away, but one step was all she managed before she stubbbed her toe on some unseen obstruction. Her mind automatically recited the spell that would call up light, the magical ‘cold fire’ that she could use to illuminate the room around her and see what she had struck. As always, since the birth, nothing happened, and the room remained pitch black. She moved her foot to try to get around the unknown obstacle, and instead managed to both step on it and identify it: one of her shoes. She had forgotten where she’d left it, her tired mind hardly remembering she’d kicked it off before tumbling into bed. The embarrassment of forgetfulness was nowhere nearly as painful as finding the cold metal fastener with the arch of her foot.

“Damn, damn, damn!”

She tried to keep her voice down, but the quick rustle behind her told her she hadn’t, that her husband was not only awake, but probably crouching beside the bed, as he always did when startled from a sound sleep.

“Alissa! What’s the matter? Is someone in the cottage?”

“No, no one’s in the cottage. Maria’s stirring and wanting to be fed, so I tried to get up silently in the dark so you could sleep…and managed to step on one of my shoes.”

Ulrik, a hunter who seemed to know no fear of the dark, came around their bed, quiet as a moving shadow, not hitting a single thing.

“Well, she seems quiet now. Are you sure she wants to be fed?”

The full-throated cry of their daughter dismissed any doubts from her husband’s mind. As he’d come around their bed, he moved quickly and surely to Maria’s crib, no more than a vague shape to Alissa’s eyes.

“Here, little one, father’s come for you. You do want you mother, don’t you? Let go my finger and I’ll take you to her. That’s my girl.”

The shadowy shape moved towards her, and Alissa heard her daughter stirring in her blankets, trying as she always did to find her mother’s breast.

“Here’s mother. Now be a good girl and don’t bite her!”

Alissa took the squirming bundle in her arms, shifted her daughter and let her nuzzle up to one of her nipples. The room might be dark, but the tiny mouth found what it was searching for without hesitation. Maria latched on to her, mercifully without a painful bite from one of the teeth Maria had been born with and began to suckle greedily.

“Do you regret it?”

Her husband’s question caught Alissa off guard.

“Regret what?”

“Giving up your powers. You were one of the strongest mages I ever met…and the most beautiful. The day you said you’d marry me was one of the happiest days of my life…right until the day she joined us. But you had to have known the bargain. Didn’t it bother you to give up everything for me, for her?”

Alissa knew the bargain Ulrik spoke of. It was taught to all mages, male and female: ‘A mage may have power, but a mage cannot have power and a family.’ It was one of the cruellest things about magic, that it’s practitioners were forced to chose between their gift and having a normal life. Did she regret it?

Maria shifted in her arms, trying to settle herself while keeping a firm lock on her mother’s breast. Alissa remembered the day when she’d tried a simple casting to call forth a spirit that had been haunting a roadside camp, and nothing had happened. That was the day she knew she was pregnant. Not having her powers had hurt that day, and many of the days that had followed. But seeing her daughter for the first time, feeling her move in her arms…

“No, I don’t. It’s not the fairest thing, but life is rarely fair. I wouldn’t trade her, or you, for all the power in the world.”

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