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CHAPTER 19 ~ THEFT
"Oh, she's so gorgeous," Agnes cooed, as she peeked over Cornelia's shoulder and waggled her fingers at the tiny little baby in her sister's arms. "I'm so proud of you."
"All I want to do is cry." Cornelia murmured. "Do you think he'll ever come back?"
"Pfft! Don't even give him another thought." Agnes reached out, tickling the baby's palm with the tip of her finger and smiling as that little hand gripped it firmly. "Focus everything on this perfect little scrap. Have you got a name for her?"
"Ysabell," Cornelia whispered. "It's what Mortimer would have been called, if he'd been a girl."
Turning her head, Agnes pressed a firm kiss to her sister's cheek. "I promise you this, lass. If he does come back, he won't be able to father any more babies for a while, because I swear... what I'd like to do to him..."
"Oh, don't." Cornelia sighed, cradling Ysabell close and shutting her eyes against the thought. "He's still her daddy, no matter what."
"Fine father he is, gallivanting around France when his wife's in labour." Agnes sniffed. "C'mon, you look all-in. Let's get that little head down in her crib, and then you can get your little head down on your pillow for as much of a good night's sleep as she'll let you have, okay?"
"Sleep sounds wonderful." Opening her eyes, Cornelia flicked a grateful smile at her sister, letting herself be led - carrying her precious bundle - up the stairs.
In the silence of dusk, as the sun sank onto its own pillow of clouds, Cornelia Goth was fast asleep in her bed as her newborn daughter dozed peacefully in her crib. Neither woke as the clocks stopped. Neither so much as opened an eye as a crack appeared in the world and a figure stepped through it, his booted feet silent on the bedroom floor as time closed up again behind him.
Hello, pretty one. Would you like a cuddle?
Aren't you a precious thing, hm? You're very special to your maman, and - if he knew about you - you would be equally special to your papa, too. But, ma chérie bébé, you are most precious to me.
Ysabell smiled up at the man as he held her at arm's length, returning her pleased look.
Oui, ma chérie! So very, very special, aren't you? We're going to go on a long journey together, just you and I. And you're going to meet some people who will care for you so very much. And, I think, because of your beautiful smile, they will also love you very, very much. Give me that smile again?
Ah! I would keep you for myself, were I able to. Darling little one! Oh, but I think that maternal instincts are stirring...
Cornelia cracked open one eye, then rose groggily up on one elbow. Her gaze went, at first, to the crib, and her eyes widened as she couldn't see her little girl laying there.
Frantically, she looked around the room, seeing a man who... seemed familiar. Oh god, a man in her bedroom, holding her daughter! Her precious baby! She flung back the sheets, uncaring of her nightclothes, and stretched out an arm.
"PUT HER DOWN!" she screeched.
Ysabell made a fretful sound; the beginning of a wail that died as she settled down almost immediately into silence again with the man's hand cradling the back of her downy head.
"Must you stress the poor child with your harridan voice?" he tsked.
"I'm warning you," Cornelia gritted. "You don't want to fuck with me. Put. Her. Down. I'll deal with you afterwards."
The only reply was an arched, immaculate eyebrow, and she screamed out in frustration, once again thrusting her hand forth and...
...nothing happened. She shook her hand, crackled her knuckles, tried once more, but still... nothing.
He smirked at her, and to her panicked eyes it was very, very unpleasant.
"Did you honestly think, madame, that I walked in here not knowing what you are, and how to guard myself against you?" he said softly.
"What have you done to me?" Cornelia's voice shook. "Why doesn't it work anymore?!"
"You aim your puny spells at me, yet I have your child in my arms." Once again, he tsked. "You demand that I put her down, yet you appear not to care whether you hit her with your attempts to expel me, or that she would fall to the floor should you happen to be successful. That is not the behaviour of a natural mother. But then, madame, 'natural mother' is not a description that could be applied to you." His tone hardened. "Is it?"
Cornelia redoubled her efforts, and still nothing came, save a small spark at the tips of her fingers. She groaned and sagged against the bedpost.
"What do you want?"
"Ah. Now let me see." The stranger paced the rug for a moment, then stopped. He fixed her with a gimlet gaze. "I think we shall begin with you freeing your husband from the control you have had him under since the day you first set your sights on him."
"I don't know what you're talking about." She looked down at her fingernails, picking at the ribbon of her peignoir.
"Innocence, now, is it? I shall spell it out for you in simple words, then." He took a step closer to the bed.
"The way he cannot resist you. The way that, no matter how hard he tries to pull away from you, he cannot. The way you rule his life. The way you tread him down beneath your heels, so subtly that he thinks he is still in charge of this household when, in reality, you hold all the strings. You never told him the little secret of your true nature, did you? Instead you held him in thrall so that he didn't even have a chance to guess at it. Releasing him from that would be a good beginning for the list of what I want from you."
Cornelia pinched the bridge of her nose and nodded briefly. "Fine. It's done. He's yours, for god's sake. Do whatever you want with him."
"Yes, you never did care for anything but his status and money, did you?" His laugh was mirthless at best, merciless at worst. "I think I would like to hear you admit that, too."
"Okay, okay! He was rich, he was powerful, with the added bonus that he was good-looking, too. Who in their right mind would want to spend their life with someone ugly? Anything else?"
"Yes. I am taking this child."
Cornelia's head shot up. "You damn well are not."
"Madame, you have no say in the matter. You cannot win this one, and I suggest that you do not try to."
She bit her lip. This... no, this wasn't one of the Protected; those rare creatures immune to witchcraft. This was something more than that. Something worse. She closed her eyes again, relying on her base instincts to warn her if something was about to happen to her body, and then she threw her mind out into the Veil.
"You will not find me there." His voice reached her through the mists, but she kept looking anyway, seeking out his spark, his signature, but he was right. She couldn't find him.
"You're hiding," she growled. "How can you hide? No supernatural can hide their nature from a witch. Why can't I find you?"
"Because I do not wish to be found. It is not wise to seek me out."
The Veil suddenly grew darker and murkier. Cornelia braced herself, knowing something bad was coming. Even with the most evil witch she'd encountered, the Veil had remained clearer than this. What in hell had she come up against?
And then, without warning, the Veil split asunder in a blaze of red light that almost blinded her.
"Oh god, no!" she whispered, shielding her eyes against what was advancing towards her. "You can't be real! There's not a witch in the world who can break the Veil like that!"
"You are absolutely correct," his soft voice reached her through the light. "But there is one witch out of the world who can."
The light died, and he stood before her once more. She could see pity in his eyes as he watched her struggle to comprehend what she'd seen.
"You... you're outside time?"
"Time and death. So, madame your simple spells cannot harm me, though they may make you feel as if you are... hrm... doing something, perhaps?"
"Put my baby back," she whispered, dropping her hand, knowing that her magic was useless against him. "Please!"
"She does not belong here. If you searched the Veil against her name, then you would know this. Her destiny is not with you."
"She's my baby." Cornelia moved around the end of the bed, clinging to one of the posts. "Oh god, please. You've taken my husband, let me keep my baby."
"It is out of my hands. I am merely collecting her. My heart is not so dead that it isn't touched by those tears, but this, too, is outside time. She does not belong here."
Cornelia fell to her knees at his feet. "Please," she whispered again. "She's all I've got."
"You are the daughter of a third generation witch," he murmured. "You are young enough to bear another child. You are beautiful enough to find another mate. And you already have another child, whose existence you have conveniently forgotten, packed away as he is, far from you in a lonely boarding school. This child, though, this life, is not and has never been yours to guide."
Slowly, she rose to her feet, reaching out to him as she summoned all of her strength. He didn't move, didn't flinch. She flung as much of her magic as she could gather in his direction, but it didn't even touch him; instead it rebounded back on her, slamming into her solar plexus and bending her double.
"I did warn you," he sighed, settling Ysabell into the crook of his arm. "I am leaving now, and I will make you one offer. One kindness, even though you do not deserve it because of what you did to the man you were supposed to have loved. I can, if you wish it, wipe this child's existence from your memory. You would be wise to accept, because I cannot guarantee what will happen to your mind when you try to speak of her to those that knew of her and find that they simply do not recall her at all."
"Never!" Cornelia sank to her knees once more, her hands going to her face as she screamed in frustration and pain. "I'll never forget her!"
"Then you will go mad, madame, for even your sister has no recollection of her now."
He turned to leave, and something inside Cornelia snapped. It would be worth nearly dying for, she realised. One last effort. If he was almost out of the room, she might be able to summon up enough power...
She spun around on her knees, calling on all of her energy, feeling it pulsing in her hand. Yes. YES! Flinging out her hand towards him, she sent a wave of fire out into the world. Blazing flames that should have engulfed him...
...but he'd gone. There was a hole in the room - a sliver of time opened up to a dark and shadowed world somewhere else - and he was already a small and distant figure stepping out of it at the other end. The hole closed up just as the fire reached it and carried on, setting light to the crib instead.
The man, and her precious baby, were gone. Cornelia slumped to the floor, her energy spent, as the crib caught alight and began to blaze.
Within minutes, the greedy flames began to lick across the wooden ceiling panels, caressing the curtains, rushing down the fabric and finding the rug, touching the floorboards and setting them to smoulder. It would be five minutes more before the glow up on the hill was noticed by someone in town, and the fire service were called, as townspeople gathered in the streets outside their homes to watch the historic old wooden manor go up in smoke, and hope and pray that the Goth family were not at home.