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Mai 21, 1543
Five weeks after the Dawngate opened

The north wind stirred the eaves. She drew an arm across a sweat-slick brow and peered up at the clouds. They billowed up in piles, stark against deep and empty blue. A flicker caught her gaze; specks passing to the east, a sprawling swirl of honey-throated southern birds, wings susurrating the air.

“It’ll start getting hot soon,” she said.

“Yup.” He fidgeted, watching her work, his hovering made more conspicuous by trying not to. After a moment, he added, “She gonna be all right?”

She turned back to the bleating ewe and placed her hands carefully, feeling the position of the lamb’s legs. “Yes. He’s positioned now. They should be fine.” A final glance told her, “You’ll have a larger flock before highsun.”

“Glad you’re here,” he said, looking at his big scarred hands. “Never been good with this. Not even before.”

She wasn’t sure what about his change might make this easier. “Is it different for you now?” she asked.

“Not so much,” he shrugged. “Guess it’s like having a cat. Not that I ever had a cat. But the way they’re always around, and never say anything. Just kind of watch. Like they know everything.” Awkwardly, he scratched at one stubbly cheek. “Only gets funny when the kids ask me to show them something. Brae’s friends.”

“What about-?” She waved her hand into the darkness under the trees.

He looked away into the green. Somewhere in the distance, the western man’s stones glowed and rumbled and bent the world in half. No one went there anymore. The herds shied from it, their patterns of wandering disrupted. At the edges of the place, strange things happened to sunlight, and fallen starlings dotted the earth, slowly turning to skin, then bone, then soil, and shoots of green. At night, sometimes, the underside of summer clouds reflected winter light across the land.

He was silent a long time. She watched emotions play across his face at the speed of thought. He’d never said much, as long as she’d known him. But torrents deep and strong, flooded by spring, pulled the corners of his face to and fro.

Earlier in the week he’d appeared at their door bearing a tiny girl in his arms, little more than a child, gasping with pain and babbling “that shouldn’t have happened” in a looping southern accent. The girl sniffled and tried to act grown up as she splinted and wrapped her leg. He’d sat facing the wall, hands clutching his face, hunched shoulders shaking.

“Don’t like fightin’,” Kel said at last, and nothing more.

She wiped her hands on one of the rags, thoroughly, and clutched his shoulder. “You should come to dinner sometime. Jadi would love to see you.”

“I trouble him,” Kel said, scratching his ear, looking off across the rippling seas of grass.

“You don’t,” she lied.

He squatted and held out a stalk of grass to one of the sheep, swirls and eddies of thought playing across his face.

“Tomorrow,” she said, folding her arms across her chest. “No excuses.”

“Maybe,” he allowed, as the grass disappeared between the rolling lips of the ewe.

The slapping of feet on dirt brought her around. A girl was pelting across the fields, thin dress and winter-wheat tresses rippling in the wind. She waved a sun-browned arm and hollered, “Marah!”

She waved in greeting, then stooped to gather her pack. It could be only one thing.

The girl staggered to halt, open-mouthed and gasping. “Marah. Mom’s. It’s her. She says. Time?” She spun a hand in the air, green eyes bursting with news.

“I understand. Take a breath, Kaydis.”

“Yeah.” She bent, dirty hands braced on bare knees, wheezing. “Hey. Kel.” She smudged away a drop of sweat trembling on the tip of her nose.

“Hi, Kaydis.” He paused, and looked at the ewe standing in the shadows. “Must be the day for it.”

“Every day’s a day for it,” Marah said with a half-smile. She turned to the winded girl and hoisted her pack on to the shoulders. “You mom’s second will come quicker. I can’t wait for you. Catch your breath, then come home.”

“But,” Kaydis puffed. “But I. Wanna see. Wait for. Me.”

She tousled the girl’s damp hair. “It happens when it happens. Kel, send for Tirnay if anything goes wrong with the lambing. I won’t be back in time.”

“Take care,” he nodded. She jogged off, leaving dust in her wake, headed for shadows under the trees.

It was just shy of highsun when Millbriar appeared through the trees, poked by fingers of light filtering through the canopy. Most of the village was away, tending flock, field, or fishing net, or grinding their grain at the mill by the river’s mouth. The baker’s chimney smoked lazily, filling the village with the scent of bread.

The Shrine of Protection loomed over the homes, a hill of tumble-down stone draped with baskets and chains of flowers. On reflex, she bowed and touched her fingers to her brow. Bless and keep the lives in my hands.

Then she halted abruptly, hide boots stuttering in the dust. Protection didn’t live here anymore. Did he? She looked at the stones. The crest of the little hill was ringed in dark, solid blocks of granite, hauled down from the north. Beneath them, dusty crumbles of southern sandstone. And at the base of the hill, very occasionally, one could find pale, worn pieces of alabaster, brought by the east-people when they built towers to the sky.

It looked the same as it always had.

She wondered if anyone made gestures of blessing at Kel now, or prayed at his feet. She smiled at the thought of his embarrassment. She couldn’t, of course – she’d start laughing. He was no holy man, no shrine. He was just Kel, who’d taught her to swim and climb trees. Kel, who’d cried on her shoulder when his first sheep was sold to the village butcher. Kel, who’d glared at Jadi and told him to bring her home before sundown. Kel, who’d stood with her parents as the ribbon was tied around their hands. Kel, constant and immovable as the trees.

The squeak of a rusted hinge came from down the dirt path. A woman appeared from a hut and set a basket of rags just inside the fenced spice garden by the wall. Eddah’s sister, come from Shawcross to help during her lying-in.

Marah pulled the frayed bun out of her hair and hurried on, retying it back more tightly. The woman looked up as she approached, and waved in greeting. “How is she?” Marah asked.

“She’s nearly through her labor,” Her fingers fretted the rail of the fence. “She’s been trying not to push until you got here.”

Marah nodded, swinging her bag off her back. “I told her she can trust herself.” She pushed inside.

Eddah was poised on the balls of her feet, leaning heavily on the table. Her fingers clamped around the edges, eyes scrunched shut, breathing in rapid little gasps. Her husband Firi stood behind her, rubbing her shoulders.

“When was the last one?” Marah asked, unrolling her bundle with practiced speed.

“They’re near to constant,” he said.

“How do you feel?” she put a hand to Eddah’s throat, feeling the flutter of her life. Eddah’s shoulders relaxed and she opened her eyes, peeling creased palms off the edges of the table. “Well enough,” she panted.

“They come quick?”

“Very quick,” Eddah said.

“Sounds like you’re well ready. There’s water?”

“Here,” Eddah’s sister swung a wooden pail next to her bundle. Marah washed briefly, dried her hands on a clean rag, and breathed on her hands a few times.

Eddah grunted faintly, putting her weight back on the table. Her breathing collapsed into fits and shivers. Marah frowned. “Eddah, I’d like you to breathe with me for a bit. Grab on to my shoulders.” With effort, the other woman raised quivering arms from the table and latched on to her, clinging like ivy to oak.

Marah pressed her forehead to Eddah’s. “Look in my eyes. Follow me,” she said, and inhaled slow and deep. The other woman’s eyes flickered from eye to eye as she struggled to slow her breathing, follow the pattern. “In. Out. In. Out. There.”

The stiffness left Eddah’s arms, and she folded herself into the Marah’s arms. “Better?” Marah asked, stroking her hair.

She nodded, winded all the same.

“Find a place you’re comfortable. When you have it, I’d like you to try pushing a little. All right?”

Eddah nodded. “Should I sit? Stand?”

“It doesn’t matter. Trust your body. It knows what to do.” She quirked a smile at the other woman. “And you’ve already had some practice.”

“I’m glad Kaydis found you,” Eddah said. She walked a few steps, wincing, her gait rolling and heavy. “I feel better with you here.”

Marah dampened a cloth and wrung it out. “Nine times in ten, I’m only a calm voice and a hand to hold. You’ll be fine.”

“What should I do?” Firi asked.

“Stand on your head and recite love poetry,” Eddah said. Marah snorted with laughter.

Eddah, grunting, lowered herself to her knees and rested her arms on one of the chairs. “Sorry,” she said to no one in particular. “My feet hurt.”

Marah patted her shoulder. “Whatever feels right. That’s not a bad position at all.” She turned to Eddah’s sister. “Gather whatever pillows you can find. Or wad up some blankets. Pile them up behind her. So she can lie back when she’s done.” She took the rags from her bundle and spread them on the floor.

Eddah quivered, grunted, and set the chair to creaking. Marah watched carefully, rubbing her rigid shoulders. They eased slowly, and left Eddah puffing. “That’s good. You’re doing fine.”

“Oh my love, my spring-time flower..,” Firi said from the wall, where only his feet were visible over the table.

Eddah laughed shortly and threw a stale biscuit at him. “Get over here.” She took a deep breath, dipped her chin, and bore down again, her body trembling with effort. She broke off with a gasp.

“Good. You’re already crowning.” Marah rubbed her shoulder supportively.

Eddah panted and wiped damp strands of hair back from her forehead. “Faster than Kaydis.”

Marah nodded. “It gets easier every time.”

“Last chance,” Firi said, kneeling and gripping her hands. “Boy or girl?”

“Girl,” Eddah said. “Always known.”

He grinned. “How do you know?”

“I just do. Maybe the Spirits tell me.” She inhaled sharply, put her head down, and pushed through another crest, teeth shining in the dark.

“The head’s out,” Marah told her. “My word. This child already has a head of hair.” She smiled up at Firi and his wooly, unkempt mane. “Must take after you.” He wiped Eddah’s forehead with a damp cloth as she shook with wild, delighted laughter.

By habit Marah felt for the cord. There, passing around the neck, warm and pulsing with strong, quick, reassuring life. She slid one finger beneath, to ensure it wasn’t caught. “One more push should do it.” She squeezed her shoulder a last time and positioned herself to catch the child, arms full of soft, clean blankets. “Whenever it feels right.”

Eddah nodded, and clutched Firi’s hands. “With me?” she murmured.

“Forever,” he said, returning the strength of her grip.

A life began.

“Help her lie back,” Marah said. Eddah’s sister and husband eased her down into the pile of pillows.

“Here, love. Take your daughter. Keep her warm.”

Eddah blinked down at the wisp of life curled against her chest, silent tears streaming down her face. “She’s so quiet,” she whispered.

Marah tickled the little girl’s foot, and watched the toes curl. “She’s fine.” She traced a light finger over matted wisps of hair. “Not every child is as loud as Kaydis.” The Spirits had delivered her soul into a handsome pair of lungs, and from her first breath she’d delighted in using them.

The rest passed swiftly, easily. She sealed the afterbirth. Later they would bury it, with a clutch of acorns, a life in thanks for a life. There was a bit of stitching. A few moments of fumbling before Eddah’s body remembered how to latch and nurse her daughter.

“You were so calm,” Eddah’s sister said. She was young yet, eyes large in a thin face. “I was – I wouldn’t have been able to handle that alone.”

Marah clapped her on the shoulder. “You did fine. Thanks for your help.”

“How many do you have?”

Marah tucked a loose tendril of hair behind her ear. “I don’t have children.”

“Oh. I thought– Well, you’re so good at this.”

She laughed. “I was apprenticed at ten.”

“And, um. Eddah said you were handfasted.”

“I am, yes.” She forced a reassuring smile, and swiftly set to gathering the soiled rags and bedding.

Kaydis banged through the door like a blond comet, out of breath again, and bounced around the room, alternately peppering whoever was listening with questions and cooing over her baby sister. Marah took advantage of the distraction to slip out with the washing.

She strode to the edge of the lake, nodding to those she passed, answering those inquiring after Eddah’s condition. A few late fishermen were pulling their nets in from the shallows. She moved clear of them and set the basket among the rocks, bending low the scrub the fabric.

The sky burned itself to embers as she worked, the lonely warble of loons and the raucous barks of the ottrekin tent-town echoing across the waves. She stared out over deep black waters, feeling the hours. Her belly growled low, like a wolf, and she laid a stilling hand on it.

The sky to the south flickered with icy light. The ground trembled like the heart of a newborn; the waters of the lake shivered.

Continued...

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