“I was wrong." The old woman shook her head and removed her hands.
Swinging my legs over the side of the bed, I paused in pulling my robe back over my shoulders. I fixed my eyes on the hearth in front of me. The old midwife was washing her hands in a basin, the tattoos of her people running up her wrists to the elbows.
A Tormod midwife was the best according to my mother. I held no prejudice against the tribe who still inhabited these lands. They knew the plantlore of this land better than any and their skill in midwifery was unmatched. My mother's teacher had been a Tormod.
Teàrlag wiped her hands dry on her homespun apron. Leveling me with a knowing glance, she sighed. “I had hoped that you would be spared another pregnancy. Perhaps that your husband would leave you alone after that first one. You were so young, so small. Such cruelty to do this thing to you again-”
“What are you saying, Teàrlag?” I swallowed past the growing lump in my throat.
Teàrlag took my hands in hers, the skin soft as worn sheep hide. “You are with child. The gods have given you a life for a life. I have seen this before, a woman loses her husband and weeks later she finds she is pregnant. It's how the gods keep the balance of life within a family.”
“Dylene- she wouldn't-” my brain sputtered in shock, despite the fact that I had already assumed I was pregnant. “I prayed so hard for deliverance.”
“And now you may carry his heir. This is the only kindness that beast ever gave you.”
I stood, pressing my hands to my abdomen. A firmness was already gathering. My first pregnancy had been so terrifying, I had blocked most of it from my mind. I tried to remember how long before I felt the fluttering kicks against my belly, the hops of hiccups, alien movements along my skin as I swelled. It was all a blur.
“Th-thank you, Teàrlag." My mind spun with the revelation and more for what it meant. If I carried to term and the babe was alive, then if it proved to be a male child, I would be saved. I wouldn't marry Theodric Vultuff. I would have produced the male heir my husband had expected of me and be rewarded with a life of my own.
Teàrlag wrapped her arms in cloth to brave the cold outside. Snow had finally come to Highfire in the night and coated the mountains in white. A surprise freeze so early in the season and after a dry, hot autumn, I was certain we were bound for a harsh winter.
“I must get home before the snow start again, my lady." Teàrlag laid a craggy hand on my arm and locked me into her sharp blue gaze. “You must take care for your body may not be able to handle too much stress and a child at the same time. I suggest you get as much rest as possible.”
“Do you still live alone in the woods?” I blurted, panic erupting in my veins.
Teàrlag smirked, eyeing me, “Yes, my lady.”
“Won't it be a hard winter out there all alone?” I raised my eyebrows in a silent query.
The old Tormod woman nodded slowly, running her fingers over her chin.
“Well, would you be against living here for the season so I may have you close? If I were ever in crisis and you were snowed in far away-”
“Will I have a room to myself?”
"That and more. You will be taken care of, I promise you.
“Very well, Lady Hania. You have persuaded me.” Teàrlag shook her soft white curls and cackled.
“Good.” Relief flooded my body knowing she would be close. “I will have the servant show you to your rooms when they are prepared. For now, go to the kitchens and get yourself something warm to eat.”
Teàrlag patted my cheek, her eyes lingering on mine a moment longer. “These months will not be easy but that goddess of yours certainly has her divine hand on you. I will give her offerings for her faithfulness to you, my lady.”
Teàrlag had stayed by my side for my first pregnancy and the months following the delivery while I recovered from almost bleeding out. If she hadn't been by my side, I would have most likely died. And Emalia certainly would have perished before she ever saw the light of day, choked by her umbilical cord.
Evening fell when the snow started again. It had been nearly three days since the company of men had departed. Hope swelled in my chest. When they would return, I would give the news to my husband's son. He would have to wait a few more months to claim his inheritance.
Come early spring, if this child was a boy, Theodric would be forced to depart with his men. I could raise my children in peace with Brisam acting as a surrogate father. Dylene's vision from the morning returned to me. It had been her promise that she would be at my side through it all. I was walking a path ordained by my goddess and fear wasn't necessary.
I sank into the window seat and pulled a fur up around my knees. The horizon glowed red and gold just beyond the clouds spitting snow as thick as blossoms. Out in the hazy twilight, I spied a group of men on horses. It was the company from Theodric's estate.
Hopping to my feet like a child, I changed into the gown I had set aside for the occasion. Blood red with white rabbit fur around the sleeves, I left my freshly washed hair bare of a veil and bound up on the top of my head. Pinching my cheeks and biting my lips red in the mirror, I donned a pair of slippers and nearly skipped from the room.
“Did you see them, my lady?” Estra called to me from the end of the hall.
She caught up to me with Emalia trotting at her side. My daughter was still grieving the loss of her father but looked forward to company. We received it so rarely at Highfire, as social as she was, Emalia craved guests.
I nodded silently, rubbing my hands together. Emalia avoided my gaze, playing with her skirts. Fear replaced the joy and I wondered if I would fail with this child as I had with my first. “Would you like to walk with me down to the courtyard to greet them, daughter?”
Emalia peered up at me, furrowing her brow. “I thought we were going to-”
“Just the two of us.” I knelt down to her level and reached for her hands. “I have some news to tell you.”
“Bad news?” She shrunk away.
“No, the most wonderful news. I would like to tell you as a secret right now. Can I?”
She grinned and glanced up at Estra as though for permission, envy sparking in my heart. I gripped her hands to me and leaned forward. I couldn't explain why I suddenly felt the need to become the mother she had missed in me for years. Perhaps it was the curling flame of life in my body that drove me to seek absolution from her.
“If Dylene wills it, you will have a baby sibling in the spring.” I whispered.
Emalia smirked. “But Lady Mother, don't you need a father for that?”
“Your father left this child as a final gift.”
“He gave me a baby brother or sister as a present?”
I hummed my agreement, my heart twisting as her eyes filled with tears. “The goddess made sure we would not be left in mourning for long. She is good to her daughters when they are faithful, you see.”
“We will pray hard this winter for the baby, Lady Mother.”
I rose to my feet and took her hand. I led her down the hall without a look of welcome to Estra. “Yes we will, my daughter.”
The snow had picked up as we emerged into the icy courtyard. A few other servants waited outside the main doors. The company trotted into the space, nearly fifteen men with saddle bags packed. The last horse past the gates was riderless. I noticed a cart had been pulled by one of the steeds.
Brushing my thoughts aside, I descended the steps with Emalia right behind me. Instinctively, I laid a protective hand over my belly. The man at the head of the company dismounted from a silver stallion, Argath Mercer close behind him.
I would have known Theodric to be my husband's son even if Argath hadn't introduced him. “Lady Hania, may I present Lord Theodric Vultuff of Gegar Red and Highfire.”
In the flickering light of the torches, his heavy brow and narrow eyes spoke of his heritage. Their color was amber, same as his father's. A chin clean of a beard with long, black waves combed back from his oval face and tied half up by a leather strap. The lines around his eyes and mouth were heavy. Touches of gray already graced his temples. He was only several years older than me but the years had not been kind.
“My lady." He walked forward and took my hand, bowing over my fingers.
I tried not to pull away. The tenor of his voice was so close to his father's, it was uncanny. Husky and matter-of-fact, I shivered as though a ghost had whispered in my ear. Perhaps one had.
“You are welcome, Lord Vultuff. I know you have had a long journey so I have already had a meal prepared for you and the company in the great hall. Afterwards, I would like to speak to you in private on some matters that have come to light.” I took my hand away, flexing it behind my back.
Theodric's mouth drew into a thin line and he glanced over his should towards the lone horse with a rider. “Thank you for your generous hospitality.”
“The least I could do for the only son of my husband.” My stomach fluttered. Only son perhaps for now.
“My lady-” his voice broke catching my attention. His forehead furrowed and he avoided my eyes. “I fear I bring ill tidings about my father's young squire who traveled with us.”
My mouth went dry but I fought to keep my expression calm, especially before Argath's scrutinizing eye. “What is it? Where is the man?”
I searched the group but couldn't find Brisam. Again my eyes went to the cart that had been brought with them. Peering through the dark, it wasn't the shape of boxes or trunks of belongings that traveled with them. A bound figure with a blanket thrown over it. A rush of blood burst through my ears.
“I am sorry but they were attacked on the road the night before reaching my estate of Gegar Red. A rogue bear clawed him. The other men tried to save him but it was too late. I'm afraid the squire is dead.”ns 188.8.131.52da2