Thomas held the lanthorn steady as he could, sweating against the heat and swearing silently against every biting insect. There was a fleshy knot or boil on her abdomen, just below the belly button, the size of draft horse’s scrotum, and the skin around it was bloated and taut, so that the whole stomach protruded and sagged over the top of her skirt, which was almost all that preserved her modesty. Thomas tried not to steal too many glances at the girl’s teats as they poked out from where his master had rolled up her shirt, but noticed the nipples were dark and puffy—like a woman with child. The boy said nothing but held up the lanthorn as his master’s left hand felt over the growth, then seemed almost to grab it firm and brought up his right hand with the scalpel against the pinched flesh.
“Hold your hand, cunning man! I am Mara of the Changeling Wood. You have no license here.”
Thomas looked up but did not see who had spoken, indeed could see little of the trees beyond the circle of the lanthorn’s glow, but his master stared at one tree in particular, and in a moment the boy made out the silhouette of a tall woman and child. The girl beneath him wriggled and grasped but the cunning man did not relinquish his hold on the strange flesh, only addressed the figure.
“Wise-woman, wood-witch, apis-maid, daughter and servant of queens, I am John Magnus, doctor of the Order of the Fly, and what I do is my own business and hers. Kindly fuck off.”
Swifter than Thomas could have guessed, the shadow crossed into the light, and the face revealed was like the sun after an eclipse. There was a cold beauty there, a beautiful woman in whose face had been set a mask of iridescent chitin, shiny metal blacks, blues, and golds playing in the firelight from the lanthorn. She was tall and regal as an Irish midwife in her own domain, and where the blue cloth and leather revealed the skin of hands and forearms, neck and collarbone, there too were set glittering insect-shells into the pale freckled flesh. Almost automatically, Thomas’ eyes fell to her breasts and wondered how far her art had gone…but then checked himself, and looked at the child instead, and the lanthorn shook in his hands for a minute, earning him a light kick from his master in rebuke.
The “child” was slim as a five-year old girl, the head with its bulbous multifaceted eyes disproportionate to the body, which was dressed in what might have been a pretty smock for a human child. It was as a wasp as an elephant is to a mouse; the whole structure of the thing was proportioned different than any bug Thomas had ever encountered, even the arcane species he’d come across since becoming the cunning man’s apprentice, and every twitch of mandible, antenna, and stunted wing revolted and fascinated him. The carapace itself was a pale yellow with spots and highlights of green, and tufts of spiky black hair surrounded the head and the bare arms and legs, or at least what he could see of them. He could not see the back of her, but Thomas wondered what her thorax looked like, and how she accommodated it while walking on two legs. While he gawked, the two wise people were lost in talk.
“She is a teenaged idiot who ran away from home because she didn’t want to marry the pimple-faced pig farmer next door. The poor bitch didn’t know this was the alfiad’s wood, and does not desire to be the hen that hatches the crocodile’s egg.” Magnus spat.
“So you would abort the life of one of the Fair Folk because of her simpleness? There are so few these days, with hardly any beast in this forest fit to bear their young to term, and yet you would destroy such a marvel only to spare the girl the consequences of her foolishness? What wrong has the child done, to deserve destruction?” she countered.
“It is not what it has done, as what it will do when the damn thing tries to claw its way out of her, as you well know.” the cunning man said. “Look you, I know you must have born the gall yourself” here he pointed the scalpel at the insect-girl “you must know the dangers to the host when the time has come, especially when the thing is not done right. Look here.”
Mara released the child’s claw, and stepped forward, squatting down and running a hand tiled in chitin across the belly.
“Exotopic implantation.” she muttered, almost under her breath “Where did the ovipositor go in?”
“Through her back, according to the scar.” Magnus said.
“Gods’blood!” the wise-woman swore. “Did she think the thing would bugger her up the ass?”
“Maybe she ran. Maybe she’s been watching her father go at the sheep. Whatever the case, she saw a six-foot wasp come out from behind a tree with a foot-long spike come out from its legs and turned her back to it. The egg attached—but if the nymph tries to come out, she’ll bleed to death. At best.”
“You’re right. Luckily, it’s far enow along—we could save it.” Mara felt at her waist and took out her own knife. “Where are you boiling the water?”
Magnus pointed at their small, roiling cauldron, and then the two fell to their work, bent over the poor girl and the thing growing in her. Mara purified her hands and arms according to her custom, and produced thin gloves of sheepgut likewise cleansed; Magnus brought forth his powders and elixirs, and before long the two were bent over the pale fleshy bump like vultures at a feast.
Thomas held the lanthorn on its pole, trying to follow what they said and did, but the insect-girl distracted him. She had come closer, padding softly on her claws, which were splayed, spiky things to bear her weight, though most of the rest of her was smooth and rounded as the armor of ants, save for the tufts of spiky hair. The stinging insects did not come around so much when she was near, and he caught a strange flowery scent on the breeze as she came closer to him. The unblinking eyes were inscrutable, but he saw himself and the lanthorn light reflected in them, and the antennae swung and trembled with greater pitch in his direction. When he saw the fabric of the smock rise in front of him, tented from within, the boy gave off a startled squeak.
John Magnus turned his head and cursed a blasphemous word, which set the ground to seething as tiny crawlers scuttled fiercely away, the air for a moment became still as all the flying insects winged off in desperation, and the insect-girl fled into the wood. Mara brandished her blood-slick knife in one hand.
“If you ever use that sort of language around my child again, I’ll gut you.”
“Then you need to teach her when it’s wrong to wave her prong at a poor boy.”
“She’s only doing what’s natural for her!”
“Aye, and she can go prong a fucking deer if she can catch it, but tell her to leave my apprentice alone. I don’t want to have to do this again. Easy now, here we go.”
Thomas looked down at what he though would be the bloody mess of the girl’s stomach, but in truth there was only one incision, along the curve of the stomach from one end of the hip to the other, and John Magnus was already working to sew that back up again. Mara held the changeling in her hands, and for the first time the cunning man’s apprentice saw the stunted limbs drawn up over the abdomen, the compaction and fusion of thorax and abdomen, the swinging tail-like thing which would hold the ovipositor, like its tiny cousin the gall wasp. It was bloody and beautiful in its own way, and Mara sang to it in a chittery hum in the back of her throat, rocking it slowly in her arms.