“Twang! Aw, I jest missed ye!”
Bran giggled as he dodged his uncle’s “arrow” and jumped to the side. “Twang! Now I’m gonna get ye!”
“Ye can try, but ye won’t hit me! I’m the best guard in the King’s troop!”
“But ye ain’t no match fer me!”
“Sure I am! Guard Billy always gets his man!”
“Not if he’s Black Bran, the fearsomest outlaw of Broceliande Forest!”
“Guard Billy eats Black Bran for breakfast!”
Billy giggled even as he dodged another arrow. How lucky he was to have such a fun uncle! Most other kids who had uncles had uncles who were grown men. Sure, some of them could be fun, they would pick up the kids and shake them, or slip them candy, or wink at them when they did wrong and not tell. But none of them were as fun as Billy. Billy didn’t just wink at him when he got into trouble, he got into trouble with him. He always had the best ideas for games and things to play. And he wasn’t like the other big boys, either, who would mow over little boys like him as they played and finish the game in a minute. Billy never let him just win, but he would play with him for days and hours, however long it took.
Like now, when Bran’s ma was shopping here in the market and Bran would be bored to tears if he had to stand by her and watch her compare heads of lettuce and be good. He had to come with her, even though his da was at home and could have watched him with the little ones. He had to go with his ma because his da was worried about his ma going out alone.
“But Lyndsay,” — he always called her Lyndsay when he thought Bran wasn’t listening, it was her big-person name — “what if the baby comes when ye’re out?”
“Oh, Ash, stop worryin’!” his ma had laughed. “This is my third baby, I know when it’ll be comin’. It ain’t goin’ nowhere today. And even if this little sprout decided she wanted –”
“Jest a feelin’ I’ve got.”
“Yesterday yer ‘jest a feelin” was fer a he, though!”
“Well, then, either way, I’ll be right, won’t I?” Bran’s ma had said, laughing. “Anyway, she, he or little seedlin’, even if she does come, I’ll have plenty o’ time ter get home and get nice an’ cozy in bed.”
“Twang!” called Billy, recalling Bran to the present.
Bran ducked just in time to avoid the arrow, or at least he assumed he did, since Billy didn’t announce that Black Bran was now dead. But before he got up, he spoke. “Billy?”
“Can we stop playin’ fer a moment, so I can axe ye somethin’?”
“Ye jest did,” Billy laughed, putting away his invisible arrows, “but if ye want ter ask somethin’ else, ye can!”
Bran straightened, dusting off his tunic. “Yer ma has delivered a lot o’ babies, hasn’t she?”
Billy went white under his dark tan. “Don’t axe me, Bran!”
“Don’t axe me where babies come from! I ain’t tellin’ ye! I don’t want ter think about that!”
“That weren’t what I was gonna axe ye!” Bran relied, though now that Billy mentioned it … “But where does yer ma get the babies from, when she delivers ’em?”
“Trust me,” Billy said darkly, “ye don’ want ter know.”
That was scary, especially since his ma was going to have a baby any day now. Bran bit his lip. “Does she get them from a bad place?”
“She gets them from a gross place.”
Gross wasn’t so bad. Bran actually kind of liked gross things — like mud and fish and creepy-crawly worms. The worms were really fun, especially if you put them in a girl’s hair –”
“BRAN THATCHER! BILLY THATCHER! Get over here, now!”
Bran looked up at his uncle, but Billy looked just as confused as he felt. “What do ye think we did?”
“But whatever it was, must have been bad!” Billy said as he jogged toward Lyndsay. Bran followed. He knew that when his ma yelled like that, it didn’t matter how much trouble you were going to be in when you got there — you ran, and quick, or otherwise you’d be in twice as much trouble.
“We didn’t do nothin’, Auntie Lyndsay!” Billy called as he got there. Bran always thought it was very funny that his uncle referred to his ma as “aunt,” even though his ma and da had explain to him that sometimes “aunt” and “uncle” were terms children used to refer to adults they knew very well. But even his da agreed with him, when his ma wasn’t listening, that it was very funny.
“I know ye didn’t, Billy. Ye ain’t in no trouble.”
Wait — they weren’t in trouble?
“But I need ye ter do somethin’ fer me. Somethin’ real important.”
Billy was getting sent on a grown-up errand! Bran was almost jealous.
Then he looked at his ma’s face. She was trying very hard to smile and be calm, but Bran thought her eyes looked nervous. And she was sweating, even though the day was cool, not warm. And why did she keep rubbing her back?
“Ma, are ye feelin’ all right?”
His ma managed one smile at him, and a tousle to his head, before she turned to Billy again. “Billy, I need ye ter run home an’ fetch yer ma, an’ tell her — tell her — tell her she’s gonna be a step-grandmama again, real soon.”
A step-grandmama? But that meant —
Billy was nodding very solemnly, but Bran had to interrupt. “Ye mean Grandma Kata is gonna come ter deliver the baby? But Ma, how do ye know that she’s gonna be comin’?”
She tried to smile. “A — a mother knows, Bran.” She turned again to Billy. “Can ye do that, Billy?”
“Aye, Auntie! Ye want me ter tell Ma ter bring the wagon here, so ye don’t have ter walk back?”
Bran’s ma looked so relieved that he started to feel really scared. “If ye could do that, Billy, ye’d be a lifesaver.”
“Aye, aye, Auntie! Ye jest sit tight, an’ I’ll get ‘er! An’ ye stay tight, too, Baby!” Billy patted Bran’s mama’s stomach, then he took off at a run for his house — which was only across the road, anyway.
“An’ Bran, can ye be a real big boy an’ help yer Mama out, too?”
Bran beamed. “Aye, o’ course, Ma!”
“Then ye can sit down on this bench next ter me,” his ma said, waddling over to the bench, “an’ rub me back, an’ jest let me hold onto ye fer a few minutes.”
Some time later, Bran sat on the bench in the front hall of their tree house, kicking his heels and waiting.
He didn’t remember when Ginny had been born. He had been very little himself back then. Billy had told him, more than once, that he had gone to his grandpa and grandma’s house that day, and that he had followed Billy around and tried to play with him and had made a right nuisance of himself. “But I let ye, squirt, because that’s jest the kind o’ uncle I am,” Billy had told him. “Besides, it weren’t too long before Roma got home an’ she took ye an’ played with ye an’ wouldn’t let me near ye!”
Bran had never been sure what to think of his three-year-old-self — whether he had been a brave little boy or a cute little boy or a smart little boy. Or a dumb one, for that matter. But he knew what he was now.
He was a scared little boy, and he wished very much that he was at his grandpa–or, well, just his grandma’s house right now. Because if he was there, he wouldn’t hear his ma calling out from time to time, obviously in pain.
Billy had never said that when Grandma delivered babies, she had to hurt the mamas …
Bran looked up and saw the reason for the sudden reemergence of his little cousin’s speech impediment. It must have been hard to speak around the doll he held in his teeth. “Aye, Thorn?”
“Why Auntie cwy?”
Well, wasn’t that the question? “It’s ’cause Grandma’s deliverin’ the baby from her.”
“Baby?” asked Ginny, turning around. Now two pairs of enormous blue eyes were staring him down.
Bran took a deep breath and remembered that he had to be — he had to be, for them, what Billy always was for him. Suddenly Billy’s shoes had never seemed bigger. “Aye. The new baby, ‘member?”
“Thorn and Ginny the babies!”
“Not no more, ye ain’t.”
Ginny and Thorn exchanged glances. “Baby naughty,” Ginny finally decided, and Thorn nodded.
“Why d’ye say that?” Bran asked.
“”Cause he make Mama cry! Only naughty baby make Mama cry!”
“Aw, I wouldn’t say that,” said Bran’s da as he turned the corner. Bran slumped and leaned against the chair in relief. Thank goodness! His da had delivered the herbs Grandma had sent him out to get, and now that his da was back, he could be in charge! “Ye made yer Mama cry when ye came.”
Ginny’s eyes went wide. “No! Ginny good!”
“O’ course ye are, angel — but sometimes, babies can’t help makin’ mamas cry. They don’t mean to, it jest happens. It’s like choppin’ onions. The onions don’t mean ter make ye cry, they jest do.”
Bran frowned. So babies were like onions, then? Well, Thorn and Ginny sure used to be stinky …
Ginny and Thorn exchanged glances, then they nodded in unison and went back to their playing.
“An’ how are ye doin’, sprout?” Ash asked, popping up in front of him like a weed from the ground.
Bran looked up and blinked.
That was all it took for Ash to frown. “Ye all right?”
“Is Ma gonna be all right?”
Why was his da biting his lip? “Well,” he said finally, “Grandma says that everythin’s goin’ well — but ye have ter be a good boy an’ pray that it keeps goin’ well, all right?”
“Da, why is this hurtin’ Ma?”
“Hmm,” Ash replied. “Well … ye know how sometimes, ye get splinters?”
“An’ even though yer Ma an’ me do our best ter not hurt ye when we pull ’em out — here, scoot over, let yer da rest his old branches by ye.”
Bran usually giggled when his da used plant-words to refer to his own body, but he didn’t laugh today. He did scoot over, though.
“That’s better,” he said, settling down beside him. “Now, Bran, ye know how splinters hurt when we pull ’em out?”
“Well, yer Grandma is … well, helpin’ yer Ma have the baby is a little like pullin’ a splinter out.”
“Huh?” Ash asked, slinging his arm around Bran and pulling him closer.
“When Billy talked, I thought his ma did all the work. Deliverin’ the baby, ye know? But ye make it sound like Ma’s doin’ all the work.”
“Well, now, let me see …” Ash mused. “Let me put it like this. Ye know how when ye do yer homework, sometimes yer ma helps ye?”
“But ye’ve got ter to do most o’ the hard work yerself.”
“That’s kinda like what havin’ a baby is like. Yer ma has ter do the hard work, but Grandma helps an’ make sure everythin’ goes right.”
“So who’s gonna yell at Ma if she don’t do all her hard work?”
Ash chuckled. “Nobody’s gonna yell, sprout — that’s jest … yer ma has ter do the work, that’s jest the way it is.”
“Oh.” Bran snuggled against his father. Ash smiled and stroked his arm.
“Babies don’t sound like much fun.”
“What? Why do ye say that?”
“Well, ’cause ye told Ginny that they were like onions, an’ ye told me that they were like splinters, an’ now ye jest said they’re like homework. None of them is fun.”
Ash chortled. Bran put his ear to his father’s chest and listened as the sounds were birthed and grew to maturity. “Babies can be plenty fun. It’s jest when they’re born that they ain’t so fun fer the mamas.”
“Ye sure they can be fun?”
“Oh, aye. Jest ye watch, this baby will be lots o’ fun in no time.” Ash kissed the top of Bran’s forehead. “After all, Bran … it weren’t so long ago that ye were a baby yerself, an’ look how much fun ye are now.”
Still more hours later, Bran felt a hand on his arm shaking him gently. “Bran. Bran!”
Bran opened his eyes to see his father sitting close to the bench. “Da?”
“Hey, sprout. Ye all right?”
Bran rubbed his eyes and looked around. Thorn and Ginny were each sleeping on a pile of blankets and pillows; Ginny was sucking her thumb. “What’s goin’ on?”
“Ye’re a big brother.”
“I know that, Da.”
“Ye’re a big brother again.”
Bran blinked and gasped. “Ma had the baby?!”
“Aye, aye, she did!” Ash chuckled. “Ye want ter go up an’ see?”
“Aye!” Bran replied, swinging his legs over the edge of the bench. Ash rose as gracefully as a leaf unfurling to the sun and extended his hand. But Bran hesitated. “Da?”
“How’s Ma doin’?”
Ash smiled. “Why don’t ye come up an’ see?”
Bran grinned and followed his father up the winding stairs.
His mama was lying on the bed in her favorite pink shift, her hair loose and curly around her face. “Hello, Ma,” Bran said, suddenly feeling shy.
“Are ye feelin’ all right, Mama?”
“Oh, aye, I’m fine.” She laughed a little, and Bran started to believe that she really was fine. “Jest a bit sore. I’ll be havin’ ter rest fer a couple days.”
“Havin’ babies is hard work!”
“Speakin’ o’ babies, ye want ter see her?” Ash asked.
“Aye, yer little sister.”
Another sister … Bran had been sort of hoping for a brother. But it didn’t matter, not really, so long as his ma was all right and the baby was all right too. Besides, he had Billy and Thorn to play with whenever he wanted — what did he need a brother for?
“Sure thing, Da!”
Ash led him over to the oak-hewn cradle on the opposite wall. “Here she is!” he said slowly, bringing the baby out. Bran found himself staring into a pair of eyes almost as wide and blue as his own.
“Almost as pretty as her ma, don’t ye think?” Ash asked.
Bran looked over his shoulder at his smiling mother, and then to this red-faced, wrinkled little baby. “If ye say so, Da.”
For some reason this made his ma and da laugh and laugh. Bran decided just to wave to the baby, who was watching him with eyes that were far too big for her face.
“What’s her name?” Bran asked when his parents stopped laughing.
“Betony,” his ma answered from the bed.
“It’s another name for woundwort,” Ash added.
Bran wrinkled his nose. “That’s not a pretty name!”
“Betony?” Ash asked.
“No, Da! Woundwort!”
“That’s why we named her Betony, sweetheart!” Lyndsay called.
Bran smiled and leaned closer to the baby. “Hi, Betony,” he whispered. “I’m Bran — an’ I guess I’ll be showin’ ye the ropes around these parts.”
“What a good big brother already,” Lyndsay said, as Ash only smiled.
“Well, I got a lot of practice,” Bran replied.
An’, he mused, thinking of Billy, I got a real good teacher, too.