137. In Castle Pulchra Mane
“Fair morning, my lady.” The servant girl Blythe curtsied as she did every morning when she entered the queen’s room.
“By the favor of the gods, aye. Send for Midwife Hale.”
“Are you sure, my lady?” Blythe had been expecting this command for days, yet the actuality of something long expected may still surprise.
Mariel started to laugh, but the laugh became a gasp. “I’ve not done this before, Blythe, and neither has my daughter. But it seems she is determined that today be the day.”
“Aye, my lady.” Blythe hurried away without bowing.
Aweirgan Unes sipped hot ale, alone at a table in the great hall. He had before him written notes from last week’s meeting and the latest missive from General Ridere. Aweirgan used this slow hour before the Queen’s Council meeting to review. Mariel had the habit of asking him to produce, at a moment’s notice, the exact wording of some communication from the general or the records of past decisions.
Blythe rushed into the hall. “Where’s Bestauden?” The serving girl neither bowed nor showed any deference to Aweirgan’s age or status as castle scribe. “He’s needed, now!”
“I don’t know.” Aweirgan surmised instantly the cause of the girl’s excitement and forgave her cheekiness. “Perhaps at the stables. I’ll look downstairs. What do I tell him?”
Blythe waved her arms pointlessly. “We need the midwife!” She ran to the north door, heading for the stables. Aweirgan rose, leaving behind his papers. Apparently the Queen’s Council would not be meeting today. What will they think, he wondered, when Mariel fails to activate Videns-Loquitur? Aweirgan chuckled. Avice Montfort will understand immediately, but what about that idiot Paul Wadard? Perhaps I should prepare letters to be sent by post riders. He smiled at his own foolishness. But I won’t know what to write until afterward, and then Mariel can tell them herself.
Descending to the kitchen, Aweirgan called out: “Tait, have you seen Bestauden? We need someone to fetch Felice Hale.”
The cook clapped her hands, sending puffs of flour into the air. “Gods be thanked! I’ll wash up and get towels and bowls.”
“First things first. Where is Bestauden?”
“Outside, outside.” Tait waved off other concerns. She thrust her hands under a faucet and began scrubbing in the hot water that cascaded over them.
“Who is it?” The woman’s voice inside the cottage was garrulous and raspy.
“Bestauden Winter, Madame Hale. From Pulchra Mane.”
The door flung open, banging against the wall. “The whole city is Pulchra Mane, you fool. You mean the castle. Get in here! We’ll need that chair, over there. I can still manage it, but why not use an able young body when he presents himself, that’s what I say. No! Not that one! Over there!”
“But …” Bestauden hesitated. The midwife’s desired object looked like a strange deformation of a chair.
Felice Hale slapped his back. “Have you never seen a birthing chair before? Bring it!”
Bestauden picked up the birthing chair and followed Midwife Hale out her door. In the street she turned on him. “You didn’t bring a wagon?”
“Was I supposed to?”
“Gods! No wonder men are stupid. They start out as boys.” The midwife pushed a large woven wicker purse into his hands. “Hold this.” Without seeking permission she swung herself into Bestauden’s horse’s saddle. She motioned for the purse, and he handed it up. “We won’t actually need the chair for some hours. So it’s up to you. Borrow an ox and wagon or carry it yourself. Just make sure you get that chair to the castle before mid-day.”
“Gods be praised.” The stocky midwife stared at the bedroom ceiling, her mouth opening and closing like a fish. “Is every room like this? A lying-in room ought to have a low roof.”
“My home was not designed according to your specifications, Madame Hale. Pulchra Mane was built by the gods.”
Felice Hale moved her attention from ceiling to queen. “Aye. And they were tall ones, weren’t they?” She bustled forward, leaving aside her tall wicker purse. She took the queen’s hand in her own. The midwife’s stubby fingers were strong and sensitive. Mariel wondered what Felice learned as she touched and squeezed all the way to Mariel’s shoulder.
“Well, it’s cleaner and fresher than most wives’ rooms.” Hale, still compressing various points on the queen’s arm, turned to Tait. “For all that, we ought to have some rushes and some nice, sweet herbs. Can you do that?”
“Oh, aye!” Tait hurried away.
“With your permission, your majesty.” Felice Hale didn’t wait for permission, but put both her hands on Mariel’s neck.
“Have a care!” Aweirgan Unes leaped up from his chair. The midwife noticed his presence for the first time. She wheeled on him.
“Out!” She pointed to the door. “Out! Out! Out! Out!” As Aweirgan retreated, Hale spoke to Blythe. “By the gods! We’ll not have men in here. See to it!”
“Oh, aye!” Blythe bowed her head. Meanwhile, Mariel laughed. “You really weren’t about to strangle me, were you, Madame Hale?”
“Indeed not. But the pains aren’t too close together yet, are they? When you’ve got time, you might as well make sure the mother can breathe clearly, that’s what I say. Anyway, your majesty has a nice strong throat. No problems on that end, it seems. Now, let’s see here.” Hale laid her hands on Mariel’s abdomen. “It’s warm enough. Take this off.”
Once Mariel was naked, the midwife folded the billowing tunic and laid it around the queen’s neck. Then her hands returned to their exploration just as Mariel’s womb contracted. “Ah! Nice, strong mother. You can call out if you want to. Just say ‘Damn Billy,’ or whoever it was who did this to you.”
“That would be General Ridere.”
“Too long. Does the general have a first name?”
“Perfect. Say ‘Damn Eudes’ when the pain comes. Or not. It’s up to you, that’s what I say. Now, your majesty, please lie on the bed. I need to look.”
Aweirgan sat again in the great hall, banished from the birthing room. Of course, a different midwife had treated him in the same way thirty-five years before, when Eadred was born. Aweirgan smiled inwardly, recalling the joy he felt that day. How proud Gisa had been when they let him see her with the baby. But one memory led to another: the black earth on Gisa’s grave three summers later, when a second pregnancy ended in some horror. Not one of the birthing women would answer his questions. They let him see her body only after it was washed and dressed. When he asked to see the baby (understanding, of course, that it must have died) they denied point blank that there was anything to see.
His hot ale had long since cooled. Aweirgan sipped it slowly anyway. He contemplated the strangeness of the day: when it came to birthing, society was turned on its head. Women suddenly had the power to turn husbands out of their homes; men had to wait helplessly for an announcement of joy or terror. Queen Mariel of Herminia, the most powerful person on Two Moons, was subject to the commands of Felice Hale, who lived in a one-room house on King Rudolf Street. In other affairs, Mariel, relying on Aweirgan’s advice, controlled the fate of thousands of thousands; but today, Aweirgan’s advice counted for nothing. On this day, only the expertise of the midwife really mattered.
The north door opened, and Bestauden Winter backed through it, carrying a wooden object. Aweirgan nodded when he saw the birthing chair. He had wondered whether he ought not to have one built for the castle; somehow in the intervening years the chair on which Mariel entered the world had disappeared. But so many things had been going on… Aweirgan stopped his excuse and chastised himself. The fact was he had forgotten to do it. Fortunately, the midwife had her own.
Blythe and the nan Claennis intercepted Bestauden on the stairs leading to the lord’s tower. They would not allow him to deliver the birthing chair into the queen’s room. The women carried it into Mariel’s chamber, and Bestauden retreated to the great hall, where he joined Aweirgan at the table. “The women are in charge, and we do nothing?” he asked Aweirgan.
“Not exactly nothing.” The scribe pointed to the magic wall, where six lights were blinking. “The lords of Herminia—and Lady Montfort—are waiting for Queen Mariel to speak with them. The Queen always meets with her Council at this time on Fridays. Queen Mariel, for obvious reasons, can’t come to her knob. You see only six lights. There were seven a while ago. One of them has given up waiting already, though we cannot know which. So… what I am doing is watching those lights. I will see how long it takes for the others to abandon the wait.”
Bestauden pursed his lips. “We cannot speak to them in any way?”
“Ha! I don’t suppose you want to lay your hands on Mariel’s knob?”
The youth shuddered.
“I didn’t think so. No. Today, we wait.”
“It won’t hurt if you walk around a bit. I recommend it.” It was more than a recommendation; Midwife Hale took hold of Mariel’s elbow and shoulder, practically pulling her off the bed. “This will help speed things along.”
Between contractions, Mariel felt joyously well. Blythe offered a hand, but Mariel shook her head and walked barefoot, skirting the bed and avoiding the bundle of rushes Tait had piled next to the birthing chair. Once Felice Hale understood that the castle’s floors were warm as well as smooth she said there was no need for rushes. “In poor cottages mothers birth their babies in rooms with dirt floors,” she explained. “And even in fine houses of rich merchants covering the floor makes it easier to clean up afterward. But if castle magic will clean the floor, as Claennis tells me, and if the floor is nice and warm, it looks like we don’t need them, that’s what I say.” She nodded to Tait. “Still, it was good of you to bring them. And that bowl of herbs is very nice.” Tait had prepared a bowl of mint, thyme, and rosemary leaves in hot water. The aroma penetrated Mariel’s bedroom and the adjacent closet and bathing room.
Blythe found an older tunic in Mariel’s closet and cut it short so the queen could wear something over her upper body as she moved around the room. In the quiet moments Mariel’s hands lay on her belly; contractions brought a grimace to her face and Tait and Claennis would jump from their chairs to hold her arms. Periodically the midwife ordered Mariel to lie down so her knowledgeable fingers could assess the queen’s progress. She and Claennis rubbed oil and spices on Mariel’s thighs and belly.
“Why does it take so long?” Mariel knew better than ask, but pain compelled the words.
“First baby takes longer, your majesty. Don’t fret. You’re doing well.”
“Shall I bring food?” asked Tait.
“No. Some wine would be good, with small cups to drink it. And keep a fire going so you can exchange buckets every hour. I want hot water.”
Mariel’s servant women all laughed. In castle Pulchra Mane hot water required no fire or effort.
News of the day’s great event spread widely. In the great hall, Pulchra Mane’s male servants gathered one by one, and in the afternoon prominent burghers (with their wives) from the city surrounding Mariel’s castle joined them. Aweirgan took charge, commanding Bestauden Winter and Bayan the Red to bring food and drink for the guests from Pulchra Mane’s storerooms. Hourly some woman appeared with a report from the birthing chamber: “The queen is doing well.” Alternatively: “We see progress toward a healthy birth.” Aweirgan commented to himself that Mariel would never tolerate such uninformative reports from the lords and lady of her Council. Afternoon moved into evening. Some guests went home and others took their place. Merchants and artisans sat together in little groups, talking about affairs in the city or news from Tarquint. Wives bunched together and talked exclusively about childbirth.
“The door to the womb has opened, your majesty. The birthing chair will be useful now.” Midwife Hale nodded to Blythe, who aided in raising Mariel from the bed. A contraction came, and Mariel cried out. The pains were clearly lasting longer now. When it finally eased, her servants settled her on the chair. Mariel’s sense of strength and wellness had drained away; now, even between contractions she felt spent. Blythe mopped Mariel’s forehead with a damp cloth. Hale and Claennis spread her legs, gently tying knees and ankles to the chair’s legs with cotton strips.
Outside the birthing chamber, it was long past midnight. The guests had all left, and Aweirgan Unes had ordered the doors locked.
“Gods, I’m so tired.” Another contraction came, and Mariel’s whole body quivered. Midwife Hale draped a warm towel over her shoulders, tucking it close to her neck. When Mariel vomited, which happened several times, the midwife mopped up the bit of spit she managed to produce with another towel. Hale and Blythe repeatedly told Mariel how well she was doing. Claennis and Tait rubbed more oil on thighs and belly. But Mariel hardly noticed their efforts at comfort; her mind moved from one pain to the next like a tiny ship on stormy waves.
And the storm went on and on.
Midwife Hale, solid of body and bolstered by long years in her craft, yielded a yawn in the morning. She had sent first Blythe away to nap, and Claennis and Tait in turns. Hale never left. Stroking, encouraging, offering sips of wine, bathing sweat from Mariel’s straining body, replacing warm towels—she was apparently indefatigable, never turning from optimism. By an innate inner clock she roused Mariel over and over so a contraction would not take the exhausted and half-conscious woman by surprise. And finally:
“There we go! Ah! Good work, your majesty!” Hale was on her knees, arms covered in bloody discharge as she received the head. “Push again, your majesty!”
“There we have him. It’s a boy, your majesty.” With a cloth handed her by Blythe, Hale quickly wiped the baby’s face and with a finger cleared his mouth. Nature took its course; the boy cried out. Claennis took him and laid him quietly on the queen’s belly, covered him with a cloth and put the mother’s arms over him. Midwife Hale deftly tied a knot in the birth cord and cut it below the knot. “Now, one more push for the afterbirth, my lady.”
Mariel paid no attention to Hale, filled with wonder at the tiny body lying on her. She passed from consciousness in joy.
The queen’s womb contracted, expelling the afterbirth, which Midwife Hale caught in a bucket. After that came blood, a stream of blood that didn’t stop.
“Gods no! No!” Hale ripped away the cloth strips binding Mariel’s legs. “Help me with her!” Claennis snatched the baby from Mariel’s body and laid it screeching by a wall. Tait and Blythe took the queen’s arms, Hale and Claennis her legs. “On the bed! Get her legs up. Raise her butt! Pillow there, aye!” The midwife’s strong hands massaged Mariel’s abdomen, squeezing the womb as she muttered prayers.
Aweirgan was dawdling over breakfast with Bestauden and several other Pulchra Mane servants when Blythe entered the great hall. The girl’s face warned them all, a face drained of color. She blinked at the questions thrown at her. Aweirgan hurried to her side, took her arm and whispered. “Give me the news, girl. I will do the rest.”
Red-rimmed brown eyes met his, recognized a friendly face. “A baby boy. We need a wet nurse.”
Still a whisper: “The Queen?”
“She breathes, Aweirgan. But I am so afraid.”
Copyright © 2014 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.