Authors: Claudia Dain
Medieval Knight Series
© 2003, 2011 by Claudia Welch
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To Jennifer and Doug, for lunch and drinks and the best conversation I've had in years; and to my husband, for always and ever.
The room was shrouded in the heavy dark of a cold and relentless night. Only a single candle burned, a single weak light against the pain and dark cold of the chamber. By that candle, hot and golden against the pressing dark, Elsbeth performed her duty.
"It is not proceeding well, Elsbeth. Something is amiss."
Elsbeth looked down at the woman she was to help, at the face swollen with strain and effort and pain. Ardeth, the whites of her eyes red with broken blood vessels, struggled for each shallow breath.
"You are only tired," Elsbeth said. "Hold fast. Your time is near. The babe is upon you."
Ardeth only shook her head and turned her gaze to the midwife, Jean. Jean pressed her lips together and said nothing.
"You know something is amiss," Ardeth said.
Ardeth said no more. Her pain was upon her again and she breathed into the face of it, straining for purchase and finding none. Her cry was ripped from her lips to end in a grunting sigh.
Elsbeth laid a hand upon Ardeth's mounded belly and felt the babe. He was moving downward, his hips easily discernible. He was coming strong and coming right. There was nothing amiss in this birthing. Nay, it was all as it should be. God had spoken true when He had declared that He would increase a woman's pain upon the child bed. She had not doubted it. Yet she did not relish the watching of it.
"He comes," she said, laying a cool, wet cloth on Ardeth's brow.
"That I knew, Elsbeth," Ardeth said with a half smile. "He will not come unheralded, it seems, though I would have preferred it. His herald is pain, and I must attend. A most unthoughtful child, though I love him even now."
The pain pressed at her again and she went silent in the face of it. Elsbeth clasped her hand and buried her wince at the pain of Ardeth's grip. Ardeth's belly roiled in movement as the babe was pressed downward again. He pushed against her bowels with his progress, and the smell of human excrement filled the air. Jean cleared it away with a swipe of a linen cloth, laying a clean cloth in its place to catch whatever else would be purged from Ardeth's body.
" 'Twill not be much longer," Ardeth said. "There are things I want to say to you, Elsbeth. So many things to say."
"The worst is past," Elsbeth answered. "Rest in that."
"Rest," Ardeth said. "I would rest."
Elsbeth could only agree, though she did not say the words aloud. God had ordained that, as a result of their fall from grace, a man must work the land and a woman must work to bring forth a child. She did not know a man who did not find joy in his work, be he knight, baron, or serf. Yet she did not see the joy in this birthing. This was pain. There could be no joy in it.
"It is harder now," Ardeth said on a grunt. "The pain sharper and heavier."
Elsbeth looked between Ardeth's legs as a gush of water soaked the bedding.
"Soon now, lady," said Jean. "Soon. Push when the pain comes again."
"I will push, but I know this has gone wrong somehow. I feel it in my heart," Ardeth said.
Her next pain took her hard and Ardeth cried out against it. Her scream bounced against the stone walls of the chamber until the echo of it flew out the single wind hole.
A cap of hair, dark as night, showed itself against the wet curls of Ardeth's womanhood. In the next instant, Elsbeth watched the skin beneath Ardeth's womb tear in a jagged line, a thin trail of blood seeping forth. Born in blood—that was the way into this world. There was no other path.
With the next pain, his head broke free and Elsbeth could see the line of his closed eyes. This was the hardest part, the passage of the head. Hard and large, larger than any woman should have to bear, it came forth push by push, pain by pain.
"He comes," Jean said. "Two pushes, maybe three, and he is free."
Ardeth's pain suffused her and she cried, a screaming cry, her head thrown back and her mouth opened wide. A cry to mock the wolves and the beasts of the dark. An animal cry to mark the passage of her babe into the world of men.
His head was free, and Jean clasped him by the neck. Another push and his body came free into Jean's waiting hands. He looked small in her hands, but Elsbeth knew that was a lie. He was too big to have come from the body of a woman.
Face down, he was, but she could mark his sex. He was a manchild.
And he was dead. The cord was wrapped around his throat; with every push the noose had tightened, and with his exit from the warm dark of his mother, the cord had pulled tight, killing him. He lay in Jean's hands, a lifeless form of bone and skin and glistening hair.