After doing this four times before, you’d think Martin would be used to it.
But no, whether he was twenty-four or forty-four, this part — the waiting — was just as interminable, just as dull, just as harrowing as ever. Some things got easier with age, some got harder. This … this was one of those things that seemed neither to get harder, nor easier.
Maybe that was a good thing. It was already hard enough for a man of twenty-four. And for it to be easier … surely no man would wish it easier. To wish it easier meant he cared not that his wife was upstairs, laboring to give birth to his child, and might not come down again … or if she did, it would be feet-first.
Ah, Martin, ye’re twice an idiot! scolded the voice in his head. Wright! She’ll be comin’ down feet-first no matter what! Would ye rather she fell down that ladder headfirst?
Martin let one dry chuckle escape him. It was all that would come. And no sooner was it gone than his wife let out a moan that set the shivers running down his spine.
He sat up, head in hands, bangs brushing the back of his knuckles. He’d never before waited alone. When Meg and Joyce were both born, he’d had his father and Accolon to sit by his side and keep him from running mad. When it had been Lukas’s turn, it had been just Accolon. And when Davy had come into the world, he’d had to do the work of keeping Joyce and Lukas calm, and taking them someplace where they wouldn’t worry. Meg had been up with the midwife, assisting, for she was only a year or so away from being married.
And now Meg and Joyce were both up there with the Widow Thatcher and Betsy, and Lukas had taken Davy to the Widow Thatcher’s home to better be watched and entertained by his girl Ella (and both of them chaperoned by Ella’s sister, who was only a few weeks away from being married herself). And Martin was alone.
Except … there were soft footsteps nearing the ladder … and then coming down …
“Meg!” Martin cried and sprung to his feet.
“Hallo, Da,” Meg answered, bustling past him to the water-butt. Martin padded after her like a duckling after its mother.
He watched her for a moment, marveling. His baby, the first one whose birth — if only because she was first, and he was sure that every scream coming from upstairs meant that mother and babe were dying — had been most terrifying, if only because it was first. And now she had a baby of her own, and one on the way, even as she tried to help her ma have her baby. It was something special, life, to allow moments such as this.
And just as soon as the happy thought came and made Martin smiled, another one came and killed the smile. Life could be special, but it could be cruel. Everyone knew why Ailís Porter had two babies on the breast. It was because she was a kind-hearted woman, yes, but it was more importantly because some other mother had died giving life to her baby, and now needed some other woman to make sure her sacrifice wouldn’t be in vain.
It was too cruel to have both wife and daughter risking that — and at the same time, no less.
“Meggie, how’re ye feelin’?” Martin asked his daughter’s back.
Meg was wetting a cloth in the water-butt, but paused. “Da? I’m fine.”
“Ye … ye’re sure? It ain’t — it ain’t all too much fer ye?”
“An’ — ye know what, never mind. How’s yer ma?”
“Ma’s doin’ fine.” Betsy chose just that moment to shriek. “I promise,” Meg added. “That’s normal.”
“I know, Meggie. Been through this four times before, ye know,” Martin tried to chuckle. He glanced at the ladder, as if just looking in that direction would give him the power to see up it, through the ceiling, to his wife’s side to see how she did.
“Da?” Meg asked, and Martin looked back. “Ye all right?”
“O’course, Meggie. I ain’t the one …” He jerked his head toward the ladder. “Upstairs.”
Meg bit her lip. “Da, ye want me ter send fer Pierre? Or Papa Edmond?”
“Naw, I’m fine.”
“Ye shouldn’t be here alone. I … I know I was right glad that Pierre had someone ter sit with him, last time.”
“Bah! I’ve done this four times before. I’m fine.”
Martin shrugged. “First time fer everythin’.” He glanced toward his daughter’s stomach, not so much as a hint of a swell to warn others that Martin would be sitting and waiting again, six or seven months hence.
“Da.” Meg stepped before him, her eyes staring through him. “If ye’re fine, why d’ye keep lookin’ at me belly?”
Martin tried to smile. “How’s me newest grandbaby doin’?”
“Ah, sleepin’ sound as anythin’! Joyce keeps tellin’ me that I’m lucky, or I will be, if this baby sleeps half so sound once it’s out.”
Imagine, that despite the screams and moans he heard from above, there could be laughing and joking, just the same as any other day!
“O’ course, Ma keeps remindin’ me that he might not have grown ears yet.”
And his wife was participating in the joking!
“Da, don’t look like that,” Meg whispered.
“Like … like what?”
“Like ye’re about ter fall apart with worryin’. Like … like ye’re certain the worst is about ter happen. Lemme send fer Pierre, Da, ye shouldn’t be goin’ through this alone.”
“I’m fine, Meggie.”
“No, Da, ye ain’t.”
Martin took a deep breath. “Tell ye what …”
Meg raised her eyebrow.
“Ye promise me ye’ll rest as soon as ye get tired, an’ I’ll stop lookin’ so worried.”
“It ain’t fair on a man, worryin’ himself sick fer wife an’ daughter at the same time.”
“Joyce is finer than ye know, Da, I promise.”
“Gah! Wright, I almost fergot about that fer an evenin’!” Martin grabbed his hair and shook his head. “I ain’t talkin’ about Joyce — fer now — oh, Wright, I should be …”
He didn’t see Meg’s smile — so small and tight that it almost wasn’t there — nor did he see the laughing light that sprang to her eyes and was dampened almost as soon as it sprung. “Da. Don’t worry about it.”
“Maybe, after the baby’s born, I can get her ter to move back with yer ma an’ me … Wright knows Lady Morgause won’t give yer ma more than a few days ter get back on her feet, so she’ll need help around here …”
“Da, ye know the chances of convincin’ Joyce ter to that are about the same as gettin’ one o’ the moons ter fall from the sky.”
“But it ain’t safe!” Martin wailed — just as Betsy’s moan snuck down the ladder and tapped him on the shoulder. He hung his head. “Wright.”
Meg only smiled.
“Listen, Meggie …” Martin sighed. “We all know that ye’re the brains o’ this family.” Why did Meg’s smile falter when he said that? “Promise me — so’s I don’t have ter worry about ye an’ me newest grandbaby tonight — that if ye’re tired, ye’ll rest. Please?”
Meg didn’t say anything — not with her mouth. The arms that reached around and held him close said more than mere words could have hoped to accomplish anyway.
Martin smiled. “Maybe ye got more than jest all the brains in the family,” he mused.
He pulled back and smiled at her. “Ye learned how ter hug from yer ma. She’s always been good at makin’ everybody feel better with one hug.”
“Aww, Da. Maybe it comes of bein’ a ma meself.”
“Naw,” Martin shook his head. “Ye think yer ma-in-law knows how ter hug like that? It’s special, I tell ye.”
Martin wasn’t sure whether to smile or frown when he saw Meg shudder. “When ye put it like that …”
“MEG!” came the bellow from upstairs — Widow Thatcher. “MEG! We need ye up here, yesterday! Where’s that damned cloth!”
Meg didn’t even kiss him on the cheek, she just ran for the ladder.
And Martin was left alone again.
Perhaps it was cursed curiosity — or just a Sim’s natural yearning for companionship. Somehow or other, though, he felt his feet tiptoe over to the ladder. And somehow, his head tilted, the better to hear what was going on upstairs.
“Push! Push, Betsy!”
“Come on, Ma, ye can do it!” That was Joyce — who else would it be?
“I can see the baby’s head! Keep goin’, Betsy, ye’re doin’ fine,” added the Widow.
And Martin shuddered. Something — something in her tone …
“Esmé! Keep pushin’! Ye’ve got ter get this baby out, an’ quick!”
He remembered why — really why — he had left the house and taken Joyce and Lukas elsewhere when Davy was born. It wasn’t to keep Joyce and Lukas calm. It was to keep himself from getting curious. For the last time — after helping Accolon through far too many pints of ale — he had gotten curious during a birth …
Martin fled into the fresh air. There were no ghosts outside.
Except, of course, for when there were.
He glanced across the small front yard to the other cottage. Now, it was shut and locked and dark. Maybe someday Davy would live there, or some other peasant family Sir Mordred indentured. But now …
Now, it was just Accolon’s old house, that had stood empty for fifteen years now.
Esmé had died within those walls. It shouldn’t bother him — Wright knew, both of his own parents had died within the four walls that stood at his back, and that never bothered him — but somehow, Esmé’s dying right there did.
Martin turned and trudged up the steps. If he was to be honest with himself, he would have to admit that he had never liked Esmé. He’d never thought her good for his baby brother — not good enough, just good. He had nothing against gypsies, Wright knew Jeremiah Thatcher had done well for himself with a gypsy, Esmé’s own sister. But Jeremiah Thatcher was one kind of man, and Kata Thatcher was one type of woman. And Esmé was yet another type of woman, and Accolon yet another type of man.
She would have broken his heart eventually. Martin knew she would have. She’d set her sights on Accolon and married him because she didn’t want to live with her sister anymore, because she wanted a house and a husband of her own. But she had a roving eye, and all she really cared about was having a laugh and a dance and a smile. Accolon had wanted more than that, and somehow he had deluded himself into believing Esmé could give it to him.
And in the end, Martin had been right. She had broken Accolon’s heart. By dying, and taking their baby with her.
At the time, Martin had wondered if it was, in its own way, a kindness — surely, once Accolon got over it, it would be better than having to wear horns for the rest of his life, and be cuckolded again and again and again. For that had been coming, Martin had been sure of it.
But no, it wasn’t a kindness. How could the event that propelled Accolon out of his snug little cottage, into the Orkney keep, and then into the arms of the most unsuitable single woman in the kingdom be a kindness?
He’d lost more than just a sister-in-law and a little niece or nephew that night. He’d lost his brother, too, if he’d but known it.
Martin sighed. Part of him hoped that Accolon was happy, in his strange new life. He didn’t know how it was possible — so far from everything he knew, everything he had been raised to believe, everything he had been taught to expect. He didn’t know how his brother could stand to live with a witch, and be a — be a —
He couldn’t think about it.
Wright, Martin, but ye’re gettin’ depressed. He shuddered and tried to shake the shivers away.
He craned back his neck, staring at the stars, what stars he could stare at between the purple and black clouds that crept along the sky. He closed his eyes. He shouldn’t think bad thoughts. Bad thoughts might bring bad things, and Wright knew —
That was Joyce. Martin turned around.
“Da! Don’t ye want ter come down an’ meet yer newest kid?”
Newest … Martin let out a whoop and ran down the stairs.
“Easy, Da,” Joyce laughed, “don’t want ter have ter tell this little mite that his da died the night he was born, ’cause his da was a right idiot who broke his neck runnin’ down ter see him!”
“Nonsense!” Martin called, though he did slow down. “When ye get ter be my age, ye get a right strong neck.” He skidded to a halt in front of Joyce and the baby. “So … ye said … ‘he’?”
“Aye!” Joyce laughed. “Aye, he, Da. Poor Ma ain’t gonna have nobody on her side in the house ’til Lukas gets married at this point. An’ Ma’s doin’ fine, by the way.”
“Thank Wright,” Martin sighed, even as he thought, No one on her side? We’ll see about that. But he would let that slide for now.
For now … he had the difficult work of getting to know his newest little one ahead of him.
Another brown-haired, dark-eyed little one! He supposed he shouldn’t be surprised, Meg and Joyce and Lukas and Davy had all been brown-haired and dark-eyed. But while Meg had looked out on the world with a nervous scowl, Joyce a forthright gaze, Lukas a bouncing inattention and Davy a big smile, this little boy … this little boy barely seemed to register his surroundings at all.
Aw, give the babe a break, he’s only jest been born, after all!
“This is yer da, lad,” Joyce was saying, “an’ he’s a man. Unfortunately fer ye, ye’re probably gonna grow up ter be big an’ ugly like him, not little an’ pretty like yer ma an’ Meg an’ me. But we’ll still love ye anyway.”
“An’, lad,” Martin added, “ye’ll still love yer sisters, no matter what right daft things they say.”
“Aw, ye won’t have ter worry about me sayin’ daft things fer too much longer,” Joyce giggled. “By the way, Ma wants ter call him Bert — what d’ye think o’ that?”
“I think it’s a fine name fer a fine boy, I do,” Martin grinned. “Now, Joyce, if ye don’t mind …” He held out his arms and raised his eyebrow. Joyce surrendered the baby.
He held little Bert up to his shoulder, not for the first time marvelling at how it was that a baby could be so small. He should be used to this — but every time he felt that tiny bundle of soft skin and hair and new-baby smell be placed into his arms, he had to gasp and be stiff and awkward and afraid anew.
But this, the fifth time, it didn’t last long.
Joyce sighed. “I’ll admit it, Da, I wish this little one would’ve been a girl. Would’ve been more poetic that way.”
“Mmm?” Martin murmured, kissing the baby’s head.
“Givin’ ye a little girl, ter make up fer the one ye’re gonna have ter give away soon.”
“Joyce, I don’t know what ye’re talkin’ about.” Martin rubbed the baby’s back.
“I know, Da, it’s cause I ain’t told ye yet. But I’m tellin’ ye now.” Joyce’s face bloomed into a full smile. “It’s me an’ Berach, Da. As soon as Sir Mordred an’ Lord Pellinore give their permission, an’ the banns get read — we’re gettin’ married!”