A wicker basket, full of blankets. She sighed inwardly. It was possible it was a gift from someone too shy to own up to it but ...
Practical, she swept round the basket, banishing the pile of dust and tracked-in mud and a few dead leaves she had been herding around the cottage for the last half hour. Then she leant the broom against the wall and squatted down next to the basket, gingerly drawing back the top blanket. Thick, undyed wool. Something moved beneath it. Her heart sank. Another one.
She hefted the basket up with an "oof" at the unexpected weight and manhandled it through to the hearthside. She collected a jug of milk from the pantry an set it near the fire to warm. Then she opened the window at the back of the cottage and bellowed
"Shem, get in here now please! Someone has left you a present!"
She went back through and carefully, gingerly removed the baby from the basket, and took a good look at it, nose crinkling slightly at the smell. The blankets would need a good wash.
The child was healthy enough - a little boy - and she judged perhaps a month old. Maybe two. Far too young to be starting life in a basket on the doorstep of a ...
Shem came in, stamping his feet and blowing on his hands.
"It's a bit parky out!" he said cheerfully. Then he saw what Margaret held, and his good mood vanished.
"Is that a bairn?" he asked.
"What do you think you daft apeth?" She wasn't really angry, but it was hard for her to contain her temper. "And it's not just a baby."
Shem leant over her, and attracted the swaddled child's attention. It wrapped one tiny finger around his thick digit, and stared up at him in goggle-eyed fascination.
"Those ... are some very green eyes." said Shem mildly.
"That's not all." Margaret carefully parted the blankets over the baby's abdomen. A patch of thick, young bark covered the baby's abdomen. "From where the cord was cut." said Margaret unnecessarily.
Shem sighed a heavy, sad sigh. "Sad."
"Yes." said Margaret. "And unnatural of course."
Shem gave her a look, and she hastily clarified.
"Not the bark, but the age. You know as well as I do that briars are never born like this. When was the last time you heard of anyone this young with the bark?"
Shem sighed. "Last week. Mother Corlis called me in, over at the Fletcher place. Same thing. Green eyes, bark, the poor thing even had some thorns. She kept scratching herself and crying. I gave them the salve. They're a little bit dazed, I think, but then you know what it's like with a firstborn ..."
He was babbling. He got a grip on himself.
"Yes," said Margaret. "This is the third one in six weeks, and there's only been what? Five babies born in the whole of Tower March since the Equinox? Over half of them marked like this, when one would be a nine months wonder ..."
Shem sketched a sign in the air over the baby, and whispered a few words in a deep, rumbling voice.
"It's not a curse on the child." he said. He sucked his teeth.
"I feel sorry for the poor parents." he said to nobody in particular. "Imagine."
Margaret was less forgiving. "They've abandoned their baby on your doorstep. If I find out who they are I'll not be wasting time feeling sorry for them, I'll be getting my pots and pans out ..."
Shem shook his head. "Think. It's not a newborn, and there's no signs of mistreatment, and that bark is not new. Imagine what could have happened to this little fellow a hundred years back. There's nobody in the 'Stoke due to pop out a bawler. It'll be from one of the outlying farms, or maybe ... well it wouldn't be the first Feni baby we've seen would it love? But we can worry about that later. Can I leave you to take care of this little fellow? I need to go and talk to the other landskeepers. This ain't natural, and we need to find out ..."
Margaret rocked the baby for a few moments and then said. "Wasn't Bob Fletcher fighting up north last year?"
Shem sighed. "Yes. Yes he was. And before you say it, yes he and Jenny were expecting very soon after he got back. But neither of the Carters have been out of King's Stoke for three years, and they've got a little spriggan anyway so ..."
Margaret tutted and Shem smiled wearily and said "It's alright if I say it, love. Just not if anyone else says it to me. He'll hear worse as he grows up I don't doubt. Right! I'll leave you to look after the little sproutling, and I'll go and roust up Meg and Toby and the others and see if we can't brew up some trouble for someone."The landskeeper grabbed his staff from near the door and set out into the cold, and was halfway down the path before his hand strayed unconsciously to the thick patch of bark near his left temple, and he stopped for a moment, just breathing quietly in the cold morning air. And then he was all business again, striding down the path towards King's Stoke.
Briars. The facts are fairly straightforward - there have been several births in the vicinity of King's Stoke where the newborn has evidenced an unnaturally advanced case of the briar lineage. In almost all cases, briars do not manifest their lineage until they grow to adulthood. In a few uncommon cases, a briar might discover their lineage from a skinned knee or a broken bone in their early teens. Earlier than that ... it is practically unheard of.
In the last three months, eight babies have been born in Upwold that have shown signs of briar lineage from birth. Seven of them have been born in Tower March, and the eighth was born to visitors from Ashill who spent three months in King's Stoke during the Spring. There were no cases before the Autumn equinox, and no cases that can't be traced back to Tower March.
The Marches are practical - in almost each case the children are being well cared for. They are Marchers after all. One idiot who tried to claim these children were evil and something to do with the curse devastating the farms and that the way to deal with it was to "get rid" of the briars as sent home with his teeth in a sack. Yet the questions keep - could there be a dead briar buried somewhere there shouldn't be? Could it have something to do with that briar agitator? Could it have something to do with the Marcher dead turned into shambling horrors by Imperial expediency?
As always when briars are mentioned, the conversation comes back round to spring magic. It is a fact that the soldiers of the Empire have been doing a lot of fighting in territories under the influence of powerful vernal curses. The Druj campaign saw potent curses from both sides in Holberg and Reikos, and Imperial armies often fought under the influence of Rivers of Life in Sermersuaq and Karsk. Yet this seems to be mostly superstition. Any suggestion that soldiers who have been fighting under spring magic refrain from having children is met with derision. If exposure to these auras was causing the odd births in Tower March, would they not be appearing over the entire Empire?
Still ... the fact remains. Something is up in Tower March.
Children born expressing the briar lineage is incredibly rare, enough so that eight of them in three months is a coincidence of staggering proportions. Any character from Tower March who is roleplaying that they have had a child in the last season is welcome to roleplay that their offspring is one of these briar children - as near as anyone can tell they are perfectly healthy (indeed, as briar children, they are supernaturally healthy). The only thing odd about them is that they all appear to be high lineage briars at a time in their lives when it is extremely rare for anyone to manifest briar lineage.
It is important to note that these babies are aging at the normal rate, and are not appropriate character concepts for anyone older than three months.