Hybel 29, 1013
“Are you sure you don’t need me to do that?” Sandra asked for what had to be the fifth time.
Nicole stopped expertly seasoning the fish and turned to Sandra with a raised eyebrow. “Sandra, come now. Just because I’m getting close to my time doesn’t make me an invalid! You should know that.”
Of course Sandra knew that. She had gone through this three times herself! But while any mother-to-be was liable to get testy with menfolk and even other women treating her as too fragile to lace up her own gown, there was a difference between doing everyday tasks and … well, hosting a dinner party.
Sandra looked out the kitchen door to the dining room, where Christopher and Milo were chatting and laughing. Maybe it didn’t count as a dinner party if there were only two guests, and both guests were family at that.
She heard a sudden hiss and turned around to see Nicole wincing, arching her back and rubbing it. “Are you all right?”
“Sorry.” Nicole shook her head. “Just some back pain. It’s been bothering me off and on all day.” She laughed as she returned to her seasoning. “I will be so happy when this baby comes out!”
“Hear, hear!” Sandra laughed. There was no surprise there — Nicole was surely at the point of her pregnancy when desire to get that baby out overrode any fears about the process. The good Lord must have designed that so on purpose, or else all mothers, particularly first-time ones, would spend these last few days and weeks crippled by fear. That couldn’t be good for the babies, or the mothers.
“How long have you been on your feet?” Sandra asked. She could do that much for Nicole. She remembered too well what it was like in those last few weeks of carrying Cora, having no idea what to expect or what was a harbinger of labor or what was just discomfort. And while she was luckier than many of the orphans raised by the Sisters of St. Coral in that the nuns were more than willing to speak to her and listen to her, at the end of the day, they were … well, nuns. They could sympathize, but they were just as in the dark as Sandra was. At least Sandra could be a knowledgeable friend for Nicole.
“Oh, I’ve been so lazy today! Other than getting dinner ready, I’ve spent most of the day on the sofa! I bought a book of stories from Reme the other day, and it has so many of my favorites in it. I’ve been reading them to the baby already!”
Sandra chuckled. “Your baby is going to know more about Reman children’s stories before it’s a year old than most Glasonlanders and Albionese know in their lives.”
“That would be the plan!”
“And Milo is going to be pumping his head full of Glasonlander stories, no doubt. Your poor baby is going to be so confused.”
“Do you really think that?” Nicole asked, glancing over her shoulder with a faint frown.
“Well, the countries are so different …”
“I don’t believe that. People are people, wherever you find them.” Nicole shrugged. And Sandra stopped talking. Nicole would know if anyone would … but it was strange. She had been told stories of the rampaging, rapacious Remans from her very cradle. Then again, there was Nicole, hardly rampaging or rapacious in even her most testy moods.
She did not notice, as she thought, that Nicole was equally silent and thoughtful until Nicole asked, hesitantly, “Sandra?”
Nicole’s back was a bit stiff, her head tilting from side to side. “What do … the ladies of Glasonland do when they’re close to giving birth? The great ladies. The — the commoners have to do what they have to do, I know that.”
“Er …” Sandra bit her lip. “What do you mean?”
Nicole didn’t answer as she set the fish pieces on a skillet and waddled over to the stove. Sandra darted out of the way. Nicole jiggled the skillet as she continued to think, then looked out the door with a nervous frown. “Milo thought it was … odd that I wanted to do this party. He thought it might be … bad.”
“Nicole! He’s your husband! It’s his job to think that you’re overexerting yourself if you have to bend over to put on your slippers!”
Nicole looked over her shoulder, dark brown waves of hair framing a puzzled but hopeful face. “Do you think that’s all it is?”
“Does it need to be anything else?”
“I was just wondering …” Nicole bit her lip. “You see — in Reme, great ladies will often have a big feast with their friends and their husband’s friends before they give birth. It’s a–well, you know how soldiers often have feasts before they go to war?”
“Aye,” Sandra agreed, sensing where this was going.
“Well–it’s like that. It’s a celebration, because–because things may not go well. A chance to enjoy all that’s best in life, because we may have to leave it soon. And if everything goes well, then it’s just a fun party.”
“When do they hold these parties? A month or so before they expect to have the baby?”
“Oh, no, much closer than that! You aim for within the week. And if a week passes and you still haven’t had the baby — why, some women will try again!”
Sandra tilted her head to one side. “But …”
“… What if you go into labor during the party?”
“Oh!” Nicole laughed. “That does happen sometimes. But if you do, usually the guests will stay and continue to feast until the baby is born. And then, if everything goes well, it’s yet another reason for a party! In fact, my moth–er, that is, my mother once told me a story about a lady who went into labor at her feast, but she was having so much fun that she didn’t tell anybody until after the party was over. She thought she would have hours and hours, you see, since it was only her second child. And then she called for the women, and because she had spent so much time at the feast, she gave birth in less than an hour!”
Sandra’s eyes boggled. “Truly? And she–she was fine?”
“Oh, yes. She went on to have six more children! And she didn’t die until she was … older.” Nicole’s voice dropped, and she rubbed her belly with her free hand. “Much older.”
Sandra’s eyes narrowed. There was something in how Nicole said that …
And she knew a great deal about the great ladies of Reme, didn’t she? She barely ever talked about the common folk, and when she did, she spoke in vague and general terms and tried to change the subject as soon as she could. But if anyone asked her or brought up the commonest folks of Albion, she spoke about them with the calm and ease of a true expert. And she had only been in Albion for five years before marrying Milo! What was the meaning of that?
Nicole arched her back again as she put the skillet in the oven. “There! That should only take another hour or so to cook. We ought to be able to–” She suddenly stopped, holding her stomach. “Ooh–oh–”
And without warning, she yelped.
“Nicole!” Sandra gasped. “What’s–”
She didn’t need to finish. She saw the rapidly expanding puddle at Nicole’s feet. And as a three-time mother, she knew exactly what it meant.
“It’s all right, Nicole,” Sandra heard herself say, just as the light started to turn red with the setting sun. She put a comforting hand on Nicole’s shoulder. “It’s nothing to worry about. It’s just your baby! He’s finally coming! Didn’t you just say that you couldn’t wait for him to come?”
She might have calmed down Nicole if she had a few minutes to do the job herself. She might have even gotten her upstairs without too much of a fuss. But Nicole’s yelp had been loud enough to attract attention …
The worst kind of attention.
“Nicole?” Milo skidded into the kitchen. “I heard you–is everything–”
He froze. He too stared at the puddle on the floor. “You–you didn’t happen to spill something–did you?” he gulped.
Sandra wished she could have answered first. But she didn’t have time before Nicole stopped her queer gasping for long enough to choke out, “Milo–the baby!”
Nicole could only nod.
“OH MY LORD!”
Later, Sandra would wonder how it was that men could lead others into battle, negotiate around a council table, brave the high seas in a leaky wooden ship, and carry out quests to the far edges of the world — all the things that women were said to be not made by the Lord Wright to do — but turned into quivering piles of jelly at the sight of a woman in labor — the one task that the Lord Wright had set aside exclusively for women.
She would wonder, too, where she got the courage to boss this knight, this King’s son albeit a bastard one, around. “Sir Milo! Control yourself! This is not the time to panic!”
Milo froze, his hands still buried in his his hair in his frenzy.
Sandra swallowed, rested a hand on Nicole’s shoulder, and kept talking. “We need to get Nicole upstairs. Then we need to send for the midwife. You’re using Widow Thatcher, aren’t you, Nicole?”
Nicole gulped and nodded.
“Good, good — and breathe easy, honey. Everything’s going to be just fine. I know it’s scary, but you’re in good hands. Now, Milo, you go on one side of Nicole, and I’ll go on the other, and –”
Christopher poked his head into the kitchen. “Can I be of assistance?”
Milo spun around and yelped, “She’s having the baby! Right now!”
Christopher raised one eyebrow. “I … don’t think it’ll happen just this moment. Sandra, what do you need me to do?”
“We need to get Nicole upstairs, and we need to send for the midwife –”
Christopher clapped a hand on Milo’s shoulder. “Good. Milo, you go for the midwife. I’ll help Sandra get Nicole upstairs.”
“All right!” Milo darted forward, kissed Nicole on the cheek, then, as Sandra took one side of her and Christopher the other, Milo ran for the door.
“Why …” Nicole asked as soon as the door closed behind Milo, “Why did Milo have to go?”
“Because it’ll keep him busy for a while.” Christopher patted Nicole’s hand. “We usually don’t tell women this — because you’ve got more important things to worry about — but keeping the fathers-to-be from falling apart is a job in and of itself. And did you ever notice,” Christopher went on as he and Sandra walked Nicole up the stairs, “how a single midwife can deliver a baby just fine on her own, but fathers-to-be usually need a whole crowd of men with them?”
“It c-can’t be easier to deliver a baby than to keep a father calm,” Nicole protested.
“Easier? Who said it was easier? You women are just far more competent at everything remotely relating to childbirth than we mere males.” They were finally at the top of the stairs, and Sandra and Christopher were able to get Nicole into her bedroom and settled into her bed. “Keep that in mind for the rest of the night, Nicole. Whatever you do, whatever you say — I will guarantee you that you are handling this better than your husband is.”
That finally made Nicole laugh.
Sandra walked Christopher to the door, since men really weren’t needed beyond this point. Still, Christopher hovered near the doorway. “Is there anything you need me to do?” he murmured.
“Get Roma! Roma Chevaux!” Nicole called. “She said she would come!”
Christopher nodded. “Anything else?” he asked Sandra.
“Ye–yes! Yes, there’s fish in the oven. Be sure to get it out before you go, please?”
“Is it done?” Christopher asked in surprise.
“Well, no, but …” Sandra smiled and tried to make a joke. “I know you’ll need to keep Milo occupied — but you’re just going to have find a way other than putting out a fire in the kitchen.”
Hybel 30, 1013
Some hours later, when the dawn light started to creep in through the parlor windows, Milo blinked, twitched his nose, and sat up. “How–how did I fall asleep?”
“How long did you train yesterday?” asked Christopher.
Milo looked up in some surprise — Christopher was still here? Then he shook his head. Of course Christopher was still here. Nobody would object to his being away because his younger brother’s wife was in labor and somebody had to make sure said younger brother didn’t go mad in the interim.
Milo leaned forward, rubbing his nose, his eyes — he wished he could rub the fuzziness from his mind. He ought to be much clearer than he was. For the Lord’s sake, Nicole was fighting for her life and their baby’s up there! And here he was, waking up from a nap of–
“How long was I asleep?” Milo muttered. “And how are you still awake?”
Christopher smiled. “What, you think I didn’t catch some sleep when you did?”
“That doesn’t answer my question. Questions.”
Christopher chuckled. Tomorrow, Milo was sure he would laugh with Christopher. Today … He glanced at the stairs. What was going on up there?
“One,” Christopher replied, “you were asleep … an hour, I would say. Maybe two. Two — I tend to wake up at first light anyway.” Christopher nodded to the rosy sky. “You’d be amazed how strong force of habit is.”
“Hmm.” Milo rubbed his eyes again. “That still doesn’t answer how I fell …”
But he knew how he fell asleep. When he had been on the run from Glasonland, he’d learned the art of willing himself to sleep. Even in dangerous places. Even when he was so worried that the mere idea of sleep seemed like a sick joke. No wonder he was able to catch a nap of an hour or two now.
Even if he felt like a heel for it.
He got up and began to pace.
“You don’t have to tell Nicole,” Christopher pointed out. “That you took a nap, I mean. I don’t see anything wrong with it — but if it worries you, well, I guarantee you that as soon as you hold your baby, neither of you will particularly care what you did while you were waiting.”
“I shouldn’t have let her have the party,” Milo muttered.
“What if something goes wrong?” Milo spun around. “What if she got herself too tired? What if–”
“Milo. Calm down. You don’t have to tell a woman nine months gone when to slow down and take a break. They’re more than capable of figuring that out themselves.”
“I … suppose …”
“And I’m telling you it’s the case,” Christopher replied.
But that was easy for him to say. Christopher had gone through this three times, and had three healthy children and an equally-healthy wife to show for it. It had been a long time since he had walked in Milo’s shoes.
So Milo kept walking. And walking. And walking. He walked until the sun came up. He walked even as Christopher tried to talk with him, and he only answered halfheartedly back.
He even walked right past Roma Chevaux coming down the stairs with a blanket-wrapped bundle in her arms.
“Sir Milo …”
Milo yelped and spun around. “Is–is–” His eyes fell on the bundle in the pale pink blankets and the blinking baby wrapped by them. “Is that–”
Roma beamed. “Ye’re a daddy!”
Milo galloped over. “What–what–”
“It’s a girl!” Roma replied.
“Marian!” Milo cried out.
He leaned closer to get a better look at the baby–his daughter. He was a father now! He had a daughter! And–
“Nicole?” Milo gasped.
“Sir Milo! D’ye think I’d be standin’ here talkin’ an’ laughin’ with ye if Nicole weren’t right as rain?” Roma scolded. “Besides …” Her smile grew soft and sad. “It were Nicole who told me ter bring her down ter ye.”
Milo nodded distractedly, then, leaning closer, tried to get a better look at his baby.
She had brown eyebrows, like Nicole. And blue eyes — like him! Although … perhaps they weren’t exactly like his eyes. Milo leaned closer …
And he realized, looking at Marian’s sweet little face, that it didn’t matter whether she had his eyes or the other set of blue eyes in his family — his father’s eyes. Or even if she had some blue eyes from Nicole’s side. They were the most beautiful pair of blue eyes he had every seen. If she had Vortigern’s eyes, she would redeem them by the mere fact of having them.
“Don’t ye want ter hold her?” Roma asked, holding Marian forward.
Milo gasped. “What–what if I break her?”
“Break her? Oh, ye’re a silly goose! Ye can’t break a baby as easy as that. An’ she’s swaddled nice an’ tight, too. Ye don’t have ter worry too much about mindin’ her arms an’ legs an’ such.”
“Ye ain’t gettin’ out o’ it fer long. Here–hold yer arms out–aye, jest like that.” Roma put Marian into Milo’s arms. Milo gulped. This was nothing like holding his little sisters, back when he had been little himself. Then, his mother had been watching his every move, hawk-eyed and ready to swoop in if he seemed too nervous or clearly didn’t know what he was doing. Roma was much calmer, more restful.
“Jest mind her head,” Roma added. “An’ ye’ll be fine.”
Milo minded Marian’s head and studied her face. Marian seemed to be studying his face, too. “Hello, sweetie,” he murmured.
Then — with courage he didn’t know he had — he lifted Marian to his shoulder and kissed her fat little cheeks. “Hello, baby. Welcome home.”