Lisbet bets on a boy

Lisbet hurriedly opened the door brimming with excitement. She had been present at other births and was beginning to consider herself quite an authority on the matter, but this was different. This was Cindra, her best friend and she was overjoyed that such happiness was about to be bestowed upon her.

Not to mention the running bet she had with her over the gender of the child. Cindra was sure it was going to be a girl, but Lisbet was equally sure it would be a boy. And so they had made a wager, she who was wrong must run three times around the entire ship in her nightdress.

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When she peered eagerly into the dimly lit room she was greeted with a sight she had not expected.

Cindra stood in the centre of the room, sobbing noisily into her little hands, her face scrunched into a distraught mess.

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Lisbet’s face fell. This was not at all how it was supposed to be as far as she knew. The Queen had been calmly waiting for the ladies when they arrived and of course Morven had not been conscious for most of the ordeal. She had to admit in hindsight that witnessing these two births did not exactly make her an expert but still, she did not Cindra should be so hysterical. And it wasn’t like her friend, she had been so excited about her approaching motherhood.

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“Oh… oh Lisbet… oh… Garrick… he… oh oh oh…”, Cindra wept into her outstretched hands, her small shoulders shaking with distress.

“Oooh…”, she yelped in pain, “oh oh… and the little baby… Isabelle… oh”.

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Lisbet rushed into the room and wrapped her comforting arms around her friends shivering body.

“Dear heart… Cin… whatever is wrong?”, she asked gently.

Cindra covered her face and began to cry even louder now that she finally had company, “It’s Garrick… he… oh…”.

She paused to sniffle weakly into her sleeve, “He… oh he was so angry…. and I… I was so frightened. And her face… the fire… I could smell her flesh… oh… she was burning alive”.

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The small girl was now trembling so hard Lisbet could feel the vibrations strumming through her own body.

She could not imagine what Garrick had done. From everything Cindra had ever told her he was a very good husband, kind and loving. In fact, Lisbet sometimes found herself wondering despite her own love of this young woman, how Garrick could bear to be the brunt of so many of Cindra’s pranks. But he never seemed to mind and Lisbet thought he must love her deeply.

She found herself frightened by Cindra’s hysterical rambling. What did she mean, the fire? Who was burning alive?

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She quickly pulled herself together, pushing her own fears back into the recess of her mind they had managed to fight their way out of. She would deal with them later. Right now Cindra needed her and it was not good for her or the baby for her to be upset.

“There now Cin, it will be all right. I’m here now and I won’t let anything bad happen to you. And Hepsie will be along any minute now and she’s just about the most reliable person I know”, Lisbet kept her voice level and soothing as she felt the other girl’s trembling begin to subside.

She withdrew her arms as Cindra stood up straight and began to wipe her face with her sleeves.

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“Are you feeling better now my girl?”, she asked.

Cindra sniffled softly and then without warning threw herself into Lisbet’s arms.

“Oof”, she exhaled, as the sudden impact of the other girl’s swollen belly caused the air to rush out of her lungs, “you better be careful now or our babies will be meeting each other that much sooner and I was hoping mine would stay in there for a little bit longer. It seems like your’s is ready to meet the world though”.

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They parted and she rubbed her slightly swollen abdomen gently. She looked up to see Cindra grinning at her despite her puffy red eyes and tear-stained face.

“Sorry about that”, she smiled.

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“That’s more like the girl I know!”, Lisbet exclaimed, “I was worried she had been spirited away by the fairies and replaced with some sad weepy changeling”.

“No… no… I was just”, suddenly Cindra’s face contorted into a grimace of pain as a contraction hit her.

“Oooooh!!”, she wailed, puffing frantically through pursed lips until it finally subsided.

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Lisbet lent down to carefully feel Cindra’s belly.

“Well I think it might not be too soon till we get to meet this son of your’s”, she looked up at her friend with a sly wink.

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“Oh no… I think you meant daughter my dear Lizzy”, she retorted cheerfully, flopping herself onto the bed and fussily adjusting the pillows.

“Oh I think I’m pretty sure I know what I meant love”, she taunted back glad to see that Cindra seemed to have brightened up.

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Cindra gracelessly arranged herself on the bed, folding her arms over her stomach. Then she looked up at Lisbet with a pleading expression.

“Lisbet”, she said in her sweetest voice, “won’t you please come lie here next to me until Hepsie comes. I would dearly like the company”.

She fluttered her eyelashes winningly, “And you look like you need to get off those feet of yours too”.

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“Of course dear”, Lisbet smiled back and walked around to the other side of the bed and carefully laid down beside her friend.

Cindra turned to her with a wistful expression playing across her face.

“Do you really think it will be a boy?”, she asked, a dreamy smile softening her lips.

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“Well now, I see you’re starting to come round to my way of thinking are you”, Lisbet teased.

“Don’t worry dear… it will be spring by the time you are back on your feet enough to be running around, so it won’t be so cold up there on the deck in your nightdress”, she waited for her friend to laugh but she didn’t seem to be paying attention.

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“Ooooh… “, Cindra breathed through her teeth, her eyes blurred, totally focused on what was going on inside her body.

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Lisbet was beginning to worry that Hepsie wouldn’t arrive in time, Cindra’s pains seemed to be coming fairly close together. And she definitely was starting to realise she was not as confident with the whole procedure as she had thought. It was one thing to watch from the side, bringing water every so often. Actually getting the baby out was a whole other thing.

As though the mere thought of her made her suddenly materialise, Hepsie appeared at the door and Lisbet gave a silent prayer to the Lord for not choosing to test her in this manner.

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“Well then… I wasn’ realisn’ there was bein’ two of yew havin’ a baby this fine night then”, she quipped with her eyebrow raised.

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“With both of yer lyin’ around on that there bed how’s a poor girl goin’ to know what she’s supposed to be doin’ eh?”, she smiled at them slyly.

They looked at each other with naughty grins.

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“Well… which one of yew is it to be or do I need to be choosin’ myself?”.

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Cindra squeaked, “It’s me!”, as Lisbet scrambled off the bed to help Hepsie. There was only the two of them to attend Cindra. It was going to be a long hard night.

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Cindra asks Garrick

Cindra awoke, shivering dreadfully despite the heat of her body. Her face felt flushed and feverish from the proximity of the fire and her hands scorched by the flames. She took a deep breath trying to still the pounding of her heart and the churning in her stomach. It had just been another dream, however realistic.

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She reached out blindly in the darkness for her husbands massive form. He was breathing heavily, snoring loudly, but she was glad of these mundane noises. Anything to make her forget that dreadful cry of suffering that was echoing in her head.

Isabelle… her name had been Isabelle. Cindra shuddered, fear clawing at her heart. That was the name her husband cried after his nightmares. The name that had haunted her life since his accident. And now this Isabelle was drifting silently through her head, invading her dreams each night in the dark. She would wake him, she couldn’t sleep anymore. Tonight she would know who Isabelle was so she could finally rest again.

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“Garrick”, she whispered gently pawing at his back, “Garrick wake up… I’m scared… Garrick”.

He rolled onto his back, grunting in his sleep, batting her away with a giant hand. The unpleasant, stale smell of ale wafted from his open mouth, as he continued to snore. Her stomach turned at the sour stench and she sat up abruptly to get away from it.

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She would light the candles. Perhaps that would wake him up. She stood up and was hit with a pain so intense she involuntarily cried out. She clutched at her stomach as a symphony of agony played through her abdomen, contracting all the muscles in her lower body, each one thrumming with its own note of pain.

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After a moment the feeling subsided into a dull humming ache and she could breath again.

“Don’t kick me so hard next time little one”, she chided breathlessly.

She stumbled across to the other side of the bed and carefully lit each candle with her trembling hand.

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She gazed down at her sleeping husband, studying the strong lines of his face, half-hidden in the darkness. He snorted gently and licked his lips, his mouth hanging half-open. Cindra could see thins strands of drool that had been caught in the wirey bristles of his copper-coloured beard.

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“Garrick… Garrick… please wake up”, she began to shake him gently and when this solicited no response harder.

He woke suddenly with a shocked grunt and sat bolt upright in bed. Then he turned to her his bleary eyes blinking in the light. He wiped his mouth with his hand and tried to speak.

“Cind… Cindra… whatsh wrong”, he slurred, “Ish something wrong?”.

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She couldn’t bear it. Tonight when she needed him here he was slobbering drunk again. She had been patient with him on the many nights he had stumbled to bed, or not come to bed at all, she had let him huimilate her in front of her friends. But it was too much tonight and she was tired and frightened and suddenly very very angry.

She turned her back to him and walked away from the bed trying to compose herself.

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“What… what is something wrong?”, Garrick asked again.

She took a deep breath to prepare herself for the answer.

“Garrick”, she said as calmly as she could muster from between her clenched teeth, “Who is Isabelle?”.

She heard her husband gasp behind her, a dreadful sucking intake of breath combined with a gurgling sob that welled up from his throat.

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She almost sobbed herself as her anger departed as quickly as it had built up, she had been wrong to ask. She should have just left him alone. She turned to take him in her arms and comfort him but was shocked to find him on his feet his fists clenched, his teeth bared, his face contorted into a grimace of rage.

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“How dare you… you even mention her name!”, he growled, suddenly very sober, “Why do you ask me these things? What do you know of her?”.

Cindra was shocked at her husband’s behavior, but instead of being frightened her anger returned in a firey roar of heat, rushing up through her body and pouring out through her mouth.

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“What do I know of her?”, Cindra repeated his words, “She is in my dreams every night, her pale face, her red hair… I can’t get her out of my head! Who is she!?”.

She was almost screaming now but she stopped abruptly when she saw the look on Garrick’s face.

His face had gone a sickly pale colour in the flickering light of the candle, his eyes filled with horror, his lower lip trembling. She could see that his entire body was shaking in rage or fear.

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“You lie”, he whispered in terror.

“You lie!”, he repeated again this time shouting the words, “Is this one of your jokes Cindra? Your funny funny jokes! Well it’s not funny this time!”.

Cindra was so shocked she didn’t know how to respond. She had never seen her husband like this, her gentle giant who had never spoken an ill word to her, reduced to this roaring, drunken brute.

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“I’ve had enough of your childishness”, Garrick hissed, turning his back on her.

She tried in vain to fight with the sob that was building in her throat. She couldn’t understand, why was he being like this. What had she done that was so wrong. Oh why did she think she should ask about her, about Isabelle.

But then an unpleasant thought that had begun to grow at the back of her mind weeks ago suddenly opened its beady black eyes. What had Garrick done?

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Her question was answered with a throbbing staccato, that began in her pelvis and pounded its way up her spine. She grabbed desperately at her swollen belly, trying to end the awful feeling.

“Garrick… “, she moaned between sharp cadences of pain.

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He did not turn around.

“What is it Cindra… I’m not in the mood for your crying wolf right now”.

The feeling continued to increase until it reached a crescendo of agony, scraping across the taught strings of her nerves.

A low groan began deep in her belly, accelerating upwards through her throat and forcing its way out of her mouth in a piercing shriek.

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“What is it Cindra?”, he asked with irritation as he began to turn.

Then he saw his tiny wife bent over in pain, tears of agony and fright running down her chubby cheeks.

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“Cindra… Cindra love”, his voice was suddenly gentle again, softly stroking at the vibrato of her pain, “Oh my darling… is it time?”.

Now his arms were gently rubbing hers as the spasms began to subside in a final strumming chord.

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“I’ll go and get the women”, he walked calmly to the chest and began to pull on his clothes, all traces of his previous alcohol-fueled rage gone.

Cindra was weeping softly into her hands as he pulled her carefully into his arms, kissing her gently on the top of her head. She sobbed quietly against the warmth of his strong chest.

“I’m sorry”, he murmured into her hair and then kissed her on her cheeks and lips, “be strong my love”.

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And then he was gone and she was left alone with her pain and her fears.

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Cindra reaches out her hand

Cindra watched as the wind set the dead autumn leaves gently spinning through the air, falling to the dank soil at her feet like off-kilter ballerinas. The leaves whispered from the trees above, clinging desperately to their branches as the breeze caressed them, enticing them to let go and join him in this final dance. They sighed gently, knowing it would not be long before they joined their kinsmen, held in the wind’s wild embrace for one brief ecstatic moment and then tossed away to be trampled into the earth. The trees creaked softly in sorrow, knowing they would soon be abandoned, stripped bare and left to their shame in the stark winter light.

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She recognised the forest from her childhood, tromping on stumpy legs through the mud with Lochan, hide and seek between the boughs of the gentle oaks. It should have seemed strange to her to be there again, this forest lay many miles from Mhalwae, but it was not. She did not think it odd either that she no longer carried a weighty belly in front of her, but could move freely among the woods without hindrance.

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She walked, content to breath in the fresh autumn air, the golden light peeking down at her through the canopy of leaves that tried to hide her amongst them.

When she had walked for an age she came to a clearing and there before her lay a man-made structure, a wooden canopy cruelly mocking the trees that shivered around it, the trees that had sacrificed their kinsmen to bring it into being.

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It was a funeral pyre, and atop a great pile of wood and hay Cindra could make out a small figure with flaming red hair. Flowers of purple and huge thistles had grown up around the wooden stands as though the forest was trying to reclaim what was rightfully hers, the vines and leaves lovingly embracing the bodies of the slain.

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Cindra crept forward and peered down upon the pale face of the girl who lay amongst the kindling. She could not have been much younger than Cindra herself, her eyes had closed to the light too soon.

Her head lay wearily against the straw beneath, her firey hair fanning out around the pallidness of her face. That face, it somehow seemed familiar to Cindra but she knew not why.

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She stooped her head to pay her respects, murmuring a small prayer for the poor girl’s soul. She crossed herself carefully as she whispered amen.

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As though on cue the pyre began to burn, though Cindra could not see from whence came the torch that lit it. It caught quickly and the flames began to lick hungrily at the young girl’s body, enfolding her frail form in the heat of their embrace.

Her dress began to catch, the brilliant white of the fabric blackening with the touch of burning fingers, the cobwebs of her veil curling and turning to ash with scorching caresses.

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Small sparks floated up into the air, spinning wildly in the acrid smoke, whirling, dancing for one brilliant moment until they winked out and fell to the earth as tiny black coals.

Looking at the girl’s face Cindra almost thought she could see it moving, through the shimmering heat of the fire. Her face seemed to contort into a grimace of pain or pleasure, her lips opening to moan. Her body writhing in agony or bliss as the flames flowed over her.

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Then she realised the awful truth, the girl was moving. She was not dead, she was alive and they were burning her! She looked around wildly for help, opening her mouth to scream but no sound would leave her constricted throat.

She tried to reach out towards the girl but the wall of flame forced her back, her eyes streaming with pain.

The girl suddenly rose, her eyes shut tightly. Cindra couldn’t understand why she was not screaming, she could see her flesh blackening as the fire began to consume her.

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“Please… somebody… help”, Cindra tried to call out but it came out as a whisper.

The girl looked down sadly at her hand the fire ate away at it, watching as the fabric of her sleeve began to slowly turn to ash, the pale skin on her hands blackening and constricting.

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Then she noticed Cindra and she looked at her, her dull eyes pleading and reached out her other hand, still untouched by the flames. Her fingers stretched out, searching blindly, grasping towards her.

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Unthinkingly Cindra reached out her own hand towards the girl’s, ignoring the pain of the waves of heat that were radiating from the pyre and the stench of burnt flesh and hair that filled her nostrils.

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Their hands almost met and then the girl gave a single cry of exquisite pain and sorrow and her fingers curled up like the legs of a dying spider, twitching slightly in its death throes.

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“Wait!”, Cindra found herself crying out though she did not know why one would say this to a someone who was dying, surely death waited for no man, “Wait! Who are you?!”.

The young girl opened her mouth and croaked, “Isabelle…”, the sound almost drowned out by the crackling and hissing of the burning wood around her. Then the fire took her.

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It is too much for Morven

Morven craned her neck to look at them as they processed through the door. She still couldn’t comprehend the fact that in their arms they carried her babies. Babies! How could she not have known that there were two of them kicking around inside her. Oh! but they were so very small, she thought her heart sinking.

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“Well hello their yer ladyship”, Hepsie smiled jovially, “we’re bringin’ some litll’ fellas to be seein’ their ma then, can we be comin’ in”.

“Of course…”, she mumbled weakly, struggling into a sitting position with Alexis’ help.

She rested her back against the bed for a moment, breathing heavily, her heart pounding, supremely irritated that such a small movement could exhaust her so much.

Hepsie slowly waddled around the bed carrying the smaller of the two. She stared at it for a moment, with an odd feeling of detachment. Somehow she couldn’t believe that this small creature had actually been living inside her for the last eight and a half months, sleeping in her belly listening to the warm thump of her heartbeat.

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She suddenly had an overwhelming desire to hold him in her arms, prove to herself that he was solid and real and not just some dream wraith that would disappear when she awoke the next morning.

She heaved her legs over the edge of the bed, as Hepsie gently protested.

“Yer ladyship… perraps it’s bein’ better if yew stay lyin’ down… yew can hold him there. Ye’ve been havin’ a rough time these past few weeks”, she could hear a note of disapproval in the younger woman’s voice.

“Hepsie… I… I want to stand… been in bed for so long… want to… see… if my legs… still work”, she wheezed.

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“Arright then… but don’t be sayin’ I didn’ give yew the best advice… and yew better be lyin’ yerself down if yer feelin’ bad”, now she was smiling slightly and Morven realised she understood, she couldn’t imagine a woman like Hepsie having to lie down for weeks. Even when she broke her ankle they couldn’t get her to stay in bed, she was up hobbling around the ships, saying it was the best thing for healing it.

She stood up, steadying herself on the chair beside the bed for a moment to catch her breath. Her heart was fluttering in her chest, the tiny brushing wings of a dying bird.

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“Here yer are then”, Hepsie said softly and passed the small bundle to her.

She held the tiny baby up to her chest, bringing his little face close to hers so she could look it at in the dim light of the room. Her son looked alarmed for a moment, looking up at her with eyes the colour of her own, then he relaxed in his arms as he recognised her as his mother.

“He… he’s so small”, she murmured.

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She gently hoisted him up onto her shoulder, feeling the warmth of his face as it pressed snuffling against the sensitive skin of her neck.

He reached out a tiny hand, clasping gently at a strand of her hair that had slipped over her other shoulder.

Her heart was thumping hard in her chest, with each thump the feeling of awe at this tiny being that she had brought into the world growing. She had not realised it was possible to feel so much.

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“Now then”, she heard Alexis, who had gone over to look at the other baby, “will you let me get this fat little baby in my arms”.

He bent down towards his son and began to tickle his tummy. The disgruntled baby kicked its legs out, squirming in Juzzine’s arms and then opened its mouth to give a mighty howl.

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“What… what are you doing… to… that poor baby”, Morven laughed weakly.

“Nothing, nothing dearest, he and I are already getting to be great friends”, he replied, swooping down and plucking the screaming baby from Juzzine’s arms.

He held him at arm’s length to get a good look at him. The babies arms flapped wildly in dismay and he gave a confused wail.

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“Poor thing… he… he doesn’t know what’s… going on”, Morven smiled in amusement. Her husband seemed to be back to his old self, joking and smiling and generally being exceedingly silly. She hadn’t seem him smile like this for many weeks before when she had been awake.

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“Do you know what’s going on little lad”, Alexis teased, “your papa’s going to teach you to fly that’s what”.

He launched the baby up through the air above his head, holding him up there high above him. On the upward swing the boy gave a wail of protest, but once he was up there his crying ceased and he stared down in wonder at his father’s face.

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“You see, we’re going to get along just fine. This young fellow appreciates the finer things in life too… like flying”, he said swinging the little boy up and down again.

Watching them, Morven’s body began to feel very tired, the weight of her little son on her shoulder was dragging on her neck. Her still swollen belly was pulling at her back, so that her entire body felt like it should sag gently to the floor where it could finally get some rest. Her knees were beginning to shake with the effort of holding herself up from it. Suddenly it was too much and she just wanted all of them to leave, leave her in peace so she could just sleep again.

“Hep… Hepsie… can you take… take the baby”, she whispered hoarsely, “I think I… need to lie down… again”

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Hepsie gently took the baby from her arms. Morven slumped weakly onto the bed, and with great effort began to draw the blankets up around her. They scratched at her skin as she pulled them up, but at this moment, she longed to wrap herself in them and hide from the world.

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She heard Hepsie beside her, gently cooing to her son, and she looked up to see her bouncing him on her shoulder while the little baby snuffled quietly.

It seemed so unfair that she could not take care of her own babies, she must leave it to the other women. She cursed the weakness of her body that had ever let this happen in the first place, her heart pounding angrily in her chest.

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As she pulled the blanket up to her chin she looked over at Alexis. He was murmuring softly to the other peasant girl. She could not hear what he was saying, but the girl’s head was bowed, her eyes downturned and Morven could see a blush slowly blooming in her cheeks.

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An acrid surge of jealousy boiled up through her throat and her heart constricted painfully in her chest.

She laid her head on the pillow and tried not to think about it. She was not usually jealous of Alexis’ escapades so why should she be now. She just wanted them all out, it was too much. She wanted to sleep. She closed her eyes and to her body’s relief, sleep found her there quickly and wrapped her in its embrace.

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Alexis lies beside her

“Alexis…”, Morven groaned as she struggled into a sitting position.

“Don’t do that love… you’ve been sick, you just lay back down now”, Alexis’ mind was a complete mess, so unexpected was this turn of events and he certainly did not know how to keep his headstrong, ill wife from getting out of bed.

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“Hepsie won’t be pleased”, he said as a last resort, he knew he wouldn’t like to incite her wrath having already felt the sting of her slap, but perhaps Morven wouldn’t take the threat so seriously.

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She was already pushing the blankets off and sliding a determined foot to the edge of the bed.

“No! Wait stay there love… I’ll come and join you. Then you have no reason to rise at all”, this seemed to halt her progress and he ran around to the other side of the bed, swearing softly as he hit his shin on the way.

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He scrambled onto the bed beside her, wrapping his arms gently around her shoulders. She had lost a lot of weight lying there for weeks and he was surprised by how thin she felt in his embrace. But he could barely contain his happiness, and had to remind himself to be careful with her frail body.

“You… you’re awake”, he whispered, his lips close to hers.

She reached up with her wasted arms and weakly held onto his back.

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“I thought I had lost you… I…”, his sentence faltered as he tried to hold back a sob that was threatening to break free.

Tears welled up in his eyes, dripping down onto her upturned face.

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“You… you silly man, look at you… cry… crying like a girl”, she managed to wheeze with a pained smile.

But when he looked down at her he could see her eyes were glistening with unshed tears.

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“Pl… please… Alexis… I want to sit up… feels… feels like I have been… lying down for weeks”.

He looked down at her and tried to smile jovially but somehow it failed at the end and came out more as a grimace.

“Darling… you have been”, he said softly, his voice threatening to crack, “Here now… let me help you. Just hang onto my luxurious black locks and muscular frame, and here we go”.

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He carefully maneuvered her into a sitting position so she was comfortable with pillows behind her back. This seemed to help her breathing a little and the dreadful wheeze began to dissipate.

She closed her eyes and rested her face wearily against his. He shut his to, gently stroking her arm with the backs of his fingers. Then he had to open them again to remember that it wasn’t just a dream, his wife was awake again, sitting in his arms, alive.

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Suddenly her body grew tense and she gave a little sob, “Alexis!… I… I can’t feel the bab… the baby moving anymore”.

She turned to him and he could see the terror in her deep blue eyes, “Oh… oh God… did I lose… lose… the baby?”, she asked desperately, the wheezing sound in her lungs returning with the panic.

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“Shhh… shh my love, no you didn’t the baby is fine”, he felt her relax into his arms again, her little face drooping tiredly.

“In fact… both babies are fine. Do you really not remember giving birth. You were very brave, they thought all three of you wouldn’t make it, but you woke up and gave me”, he stopped here for a dramatic pause, “two little sons”.

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She gazed at him in astonishment at this news, a look which quickly turned into a small proud smile.

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“Two sons… well dearest… it… it seems you were right… about that… feeling of… sonliness”, she broke off here with a croaking laugh that turned into a coughing fit.

“There now love”, he murmured when it had finally subsided, “take it easy, you don’t want to wear yourself out, you’ve had a very rough time of it. I promise I will try not to make any more jokes for a while”.

“I… I don’t think that will… be… likely”, she smiled at him, “Alexis… can… can I see them?”.

“Of course darling, but you just have a bit of a rest now. I will get Hepsie to have a look over you and after that we’ll see what we can do”.

He leaned in to gently kiss her face and then helped her back under the blankets, where her exhausted body found sleep again.

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Snowflake tricks the man

She had been waiting patiently at the door for what seemed like an age. It had definitely been long enough for her tiny tummy to begin to rumble, and she realised it was probably approaching the time when the big mother cat allowed her kittens to feed. Snowflake could partake in this if no one noticed her, which was often the case.

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The big mother cat would lie slumped on her side, as crowds of tiny kittens jostled each other to try and get a teat. After everyone was engaged, some kittens sucking away contentedly, while others detached and lay moaning on the floor, their tiny bellies swollen with milk, she could usually sneak in and get a feed. There had been many cuffs from the big mother cat, and scratches from the other kittens however. It wasn’t easy to hide her white coat amongst the mottled colours of the litter.

Perhaps she was waiting in vain, and should go back to the others and see if she could get some milk.

Then suddenly, the door clicked open. Now was her chance! She scrambled onto her feet and galloped through the opening as fast as her tiny paws could carry her.

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She ran past the big black boots of the man, feeling a little bad for tricking him this way. He was always kind to her, feeding her treats, tickling behind her ears. There were times when he had even let her sleep beside him on his bed, a privilege none of the other kittens she’d met had ever been granted. But she had a mission and it was an important one. The last thing her mother had purred into her tiny ears was that she must look after the mistress. And so she would, but they had locked her out for so many days she was growing desperate. She hoped the man would forgive her.

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She almost gave a small meow of triumph as he tromped out into the hallway, but then she remembered she wasn’t supposed to be there and caught it right before it squeaked out. The man didn’t notice her and shut the door behind him.

She ran round the side of the bed to where her mistress lay but then she encountered a problem. The hulking wooden structure soared high above her head and she could see no way of reaching her mistress’ side. She gazed up in despair.

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There was nothing to it. She was just going to have to jump. She crouched low, tensing all her muscles as she had seen the adult cats do before they pounced. Then with all her might she threw herself upwards towards the bed. Her little paws batted at the side, wildly scrabbling for something to hold onto to, but it was to no avail and she crashed back down to the floor, hurting her legs when she fell.

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She tried this several more times, each with the same result, until her legs were trembling and she could jump no longer.

She slumped down onto her side, staring at her paws in frustration. Why couldn’t she just jump a bit higher? She had seen the big cats do it with such ease and grace and she desperately wanted to be like them. What sort of cat was she if she couldn’t even jump. How would she be able to do other catly things, like catch mice for instance, if she couldn’t complete such an easy task.

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She looked up at the wooden underside of the bed, the angular lines seemed to be mocking her and every time she had jumped higher, the bed seemed to stretch upwards on its legs. She noticed the underside of the mattress moving slightly, and the bed squeaked, laughing at her misfortune.

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Then she heard a faint moan from above and the mattress moved a bit more, bulging out in some areas, springing back in others. The wooden boards of the bed were creaking more now, a sound of irritation at the movement above.

She suddenly realised what this meant and gave a startled squeak, leaping to her feet.

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“Alexis…”, a muffled voice from on high came down to her.

She meowed again in excitement, as she saw one of her mistress’ fingers poking over the side of the bed. She simply must get up there. It was her duty to both her mother and her mistress and she could not fail.

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She crouched down again, building up the energy in her legs, wiggling her tail-end back and forth as she had seen the adult cats do, to build the power. This was it, THE jump, she knew she would make it now. She had the incentive, the motivation, she was a big cat soaring gracefully through the air, landing with poise where she wanted.

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She took a deep breath and launched herself into the air. She was going to make it, she had jumped higher than ever before, she felt her paws collide with the side of the bed and she began to scrabble for something to dig her claws into. But the evil mattress was mostly packed hay at this point, and her tiny claws could not find a paw-hold. She started to fall and she knew this time she would really hurt herself, her legs would be crushed underneath her falling weight. She panicked, her legs and arms flailing as she fell.

And then something strange happened. Despite her terror, she felt her body twisting of its own accord and then suddenly all four feet was were on the ground and she wasn’t falling anymore.

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She gingerly picked up a paw and examined it for damage, but there was none. She licked at it just in case, but no pain shot through her limbs with the rough touch of her tongue. Amazing!

She was just contemplating this miraculous feat when she heard the door open again.

“Alexis… “, her mistress’ voice croaked from the bed again and Snowflake remembered what she had been trying to do.

“Morven!”, the man gave a strangled cry and the black boots stomped around the side of the bed so that she had to leap out of the way to avoid being crushed.

She mewed up at him in the hope that he would lift her up to the bed, but he seemed otherwise occupied. It almost sounded like he was crying.

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With a sigh she crawled underneath the chair where she would be safe from those awful gigantic boot-clad feet and curled up. She was exhausted from her efforts and within moments, she was within the folds of sleep.

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Steen shoulders some of the weight

Steen was getting tired of sitting. He had been perched on this uncomfortable lump of wood that served for a chair for hours. He did not feel at ease sitting in this dark musty room, listening to the ragged breathing of the priest who lay tossing and turning in the bed beside him.

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He gingerly stretched his shoulders upwards, trying to work out the uncomfortable kinks that had settled there from the long hours of sitting. He didn’t want to be here, confined in the unpleasant closeness of the sick room as the night passed by. He wished he were out searching for who, or what did this, rather than sitting here in the dark.

But he would do anything for Hepsie and he knew that this was the best way he could help her. He was worried about his little wife as she ran about, carrying the weight of everyone’s sorrows on her shoulders. They were strong shoulders, but so small to be bearing such a great burden. He would carry as much of the load for her as he could.

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He cared about the Father too, and knew it was deeply important that he awoke. The people were in desperate need of guidance, and the priest provided that in his own gentle, tentative way. But in the back of Steen’s mind he could not help but think of the many times he had seen the priest with Valeriya. And there was a certain something that Steen could recognise in the man’s eyes when he gazed upon her lovely, pale face. Steen knew it because his expression must have been the same when he was looking at Hepsie.

Now as he looked down upon the man’s tortured face, as he gritted and gnashed his teeth, moaning in pain, he felt an overwhelming pity for him.

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Steen was lucky, God had been kind to him and given him Hepsie, the only thing he truly wanted in this world. But it seemed to him the devil nipped at Harndall’s feet, while he struggled to stay on the path chosen for him. Steen was lucky. What if he had been born a priest. What then? Would he still have loved Hepsie? He knew it for sure. Whatever incarnation God has seen fit to assign to him, he would love her, whether he were a Prince on high, or a dog whining at her feet.

She was so beautiful her soft features, her infinitely kissable lips, the rosy blooms in her cheeks, her deep brown eyes that smiled even when she didn’t. He loved the way her curly hair cascaded down her shoulders when she loosed it at the end of the day. No one else saw it that way, they could only suspect from the tiny curls she neatly tucked behind her ears. Sometimes he liked to twine those thick strands between his fingers, or just bury his face in her hair and breath deep the comforting scent of hay and sandalwood.

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He awoke with a start as the door clicked open softly.

“Well my luverly… looks like I’m catchin’ yew sleepin’ on the job eh?”, she smiled warmly at him but he could see the exhaustion hiding just beneath the surface. He knew how much effort it was for her to pretend and he wanted to take her in his arms and carry her to bed where she could sleep for as long as she wanted. He would stand guard at the door and turn the needy folks away. He would do it for her. But she would never want that.

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He looked up at her beautiful, beloved face, as she gazed down at him, and his heart thumped painfully in his chest. He loved it when she looked down upon him like this, it was such a change from the usual way of things as he towered above her all day. In the night he loved to lay back and watch her as she moved above him. She would look down at him, her dark hair falling around her flushed face, her lips parted in a soft moan, as his body moved in rhythm with hers.

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As he leant forward to push himself out of their chair his face almost brushed her pregnant belly. He paused for a moment to have word with the little creature growing inside.

“Well hello in there, how’re yew doin’ littl’ mite… bet yer gettin’ tired of yer ma runnin’ around like this and think she should be takin’ a bit of a rest now”, he nodded sagely pretending to listen to some unheard voice.

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He stood up now looking down at Hepsie. He loved this too, the way her eyes raised up to him expectantly and he could see the inside of her lower lip when her mouth was slightly opened. Also it did give him an extremely good vantage point to gaze at the curves of her breasts peeking cheekily out the top of her dress.

“Littl’ mite in there’s bein’ sayin’ yew need to be goin’ ter get some rest now”, he grinned at her, “yew best be listenin’… I’d say that there babies got its ma’s smarts so it’s probably bein’ knowin’ best and all”.

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He swooped her up into a gentle hug, rubbing her back with his great paws. He could feel how tense her muscles were, and her body fell forward wearily against his as she let him knead her back.

Suddenly he felt her body go stiff against him, and she gave a small gasp, the sound muffled by his shirt.

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He heard a strangled sob behind him followed by a low moan of pain and a rustling of the blankets.

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He turned to see Father Harndall sitting bolt upright in bed, staring at his surroundings in confusion.

“Wha…what?!… Mella… M… Mella…”, he groaned again, “Valeriya! Oh… oh God… oh”.

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The panic-stricken man now tried to push the blankets off and stand up as Hepsie and Steen stared at him in shock. His legs collapsed underneath him and he slid to the floor in a crumbled heap with a low cry of pain.

This set Hepsie in action again, and within seconds she was kneeling on the floor beside Harndall. Steen fell to his knees too but was unsure what he should do. He would wait and follow Hepsie’s lead, she would know what to do.

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And she did, in an instant her arms were wrapped around the frail priests shoulders and she was murmuring words of comfort as they sat in a heap together on the floor. He was weeping, muttering about Mella and Valeriya and something about someone’s eyes. Occasionally his sobs were interrupted by bout of hysterical, laughter followed by uncontrolled shivers that rampaged through his body.

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Steen knew he had married the best of women as he watched his little wife, holding the priest in her gentle arms until the storm of sobbing finally subsided and his head drooped weakly towards his legs. She always knew exactly what to do, exactly what to say to make people feel better.

“Can you be helpin’ me be puttin’ this good Father back to his bed now luv… he’s bein’ needin’ a good deal more rest before he decidin’ it’s time to be gettin’ up and walkin’ round”.

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He leapt to his feet first helping his little wife as she struggled to hers and then carefully lifting the Father back into his bed. He managed to send Hepsie to get some rest, after she had checked over the Father, who was now sleeping soundly, three times. Then he resumed his position on that dreadfully uncomfortable seat and began to entertain himself again with thoughts of his wife. It was going to be a long night.

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Hepsie holds back the exhaustion

Hepsie could hear the wailing before she entered the room. She opened the door to find an extremely harassed looking Juzzine, holding the bigger of the two babies in her arms. The other baby lay quietly in his crib, his face turned towards the wall.

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They were terribly lucky to have Juzzine, she thought. The young woman had given birth a month ago and she now had the task of feeding not only her own babe, but Morven’s two as well. It was not an easy job, and Hepsie felt bad for her but there was nobody else. The only other women who had given birth on the island were Darina and the Queen. Darina barely had enough milk for Aisling, and of course they could not ask such a thing of the Queen. So the task had fallen to Juzzine, and she had accepted it without question as she did with everything.

She was trying now desperately to quiet the child’s incessant crying but to no avail. Hepsie could see his unhappy face pressed up against her shoulder, his tiny mouth open and tears running down his red little cheeks.

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“Come now little’un”, Hepsie cooed, bending down to gently rub his feet, “will yew stop cryin’ fer poor old Juzzi then… she’s bein’ awful good to yew”.

Hepsie had a way with babies, usually she could get them to stop crying quite easily. Not this one unfortunately.

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He looked at her accusatorily and yanked his tiny leg from her grasp. Then he opened his mouth wide and began to wail with more gusto than before.

Though he had his mother’s eyes, Hepsie thought she could see some of the cheek of his father shining out of them. It was almost as though his heart wasn’t in it and he was just putting on this show to get the attention of two young ladies.

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“See there then… there’s nothin’ yew can be doin’. He just won’t be stoppin'”, Juzzine said sighing in exhaustion, “I’ve been tryin’ everythin’ I can think of”.

Looking at her Hepsie could see the weariness on the other woman’s face, and thought she must look quite similar. They were all being stretched too thin, and it was becoming evident in the small rips and fraying at the edges. She saw that if she were to fall apart now they would all follow, tearing into shreds to be scattered in the frigid winds of the gale outside.

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“There’s bein’ somethin’ else too then Hepsie”, Juzzine said, her face creasing into a worried frown, as she hefted her small load onto her shoulder and began to rub its back “My milk’s running low now… I could barely get enough out for this little’un here just now”.

She choked slightly on her words, “What’ll I be doin’ fer me own littl’ bub, I don’t think I be havin’ enough in me fer the three of ’em”.

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This very thing had been worrying Hepsie too, but she could not let the other woman see that. Some women had more than enough milk while others were struggling to feed their own. And here Juzzine was feeding three. But she also knew that sometimes stress and lack of sleep could cause this to happen and they just had to hope that this was the case. Otherwise she didn’t know what they would do.

“Now then’ Juzzi… don’t yew be worryin’ that pretty head o’ yers”, Hepsie began reassuringly.

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“Yer just bein’ overtired then, it’s bein’ hard work takin’ care o’ all these little’uns and with all the feedin’ it’s bound to be… tiring”, she caught herself just before she said draining.

“But yew probably just be needin’ a bit o’ sleep. Sometimes this be happenin’ when us ladies are tired. I’ll find someone else to be watchin’ over these two tonight and yew can go back to yer husband and yer own littl’un and get some rest”.

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“When was the last time yew been feedin’ these un’s?”, she asked.

“Well, I just fed this’un which is maybe why he’s bein’ cryin’ so much… I think it hurts his wee tummy, but it dried up when I wasn’ quite done. Before that I fed his brother, but Hepsie he don’t be eatin’ so much and he’s bein’ suckin’ so very weakly”.

“And what about yer own?”, Hepsie asked gently.

The other girl’s tired face broke into a proud smile at the mention of her son, “Oh Sermak’s been bringin’ him to me bout’ an hour gone, so he’s good an’ fed now”.

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“Well then… all that’s bein’ left fer yew to do then is goin’ get some sleep fer a time”, she smiled kindly at Juzzine, “Now let be seein’ the other littl’un here”.

She went over to the crib and gazed down at the tiny baby inside.

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He looked back up at her with Morven’s big blue eyes, his arm lying limply at his side. She didn’t like to say but she had grave fears about this one. They were both such small things, but his brother seemed to have been imparted all the energy. This little one only lay there listlessly, listening to his brother’s loud wailing.

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She gently picked up the limp baby, and held him close to her. He did not object , but only lay in her arm’s, his eye’s half-closed as though the action of her lifting him from the cradle had exhausted him.

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“Poor littl’ mite”, she murmured softly too him, cradling him against her shoulder, feeling his tiny cold face against hers.

The exhaustion of the day came crashing down on her and she thought she might sob, but she held it in, gently stroking the soft skin on his back.

“Yew just better be arright then littl’un”, she whispered fiercely to him, “yew’ve got a papa who’s bein’ in sore need of yew”.

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Hepsie is only one woman

Varda looked up at her, neatly tucking away the embroidery she had been working on as Hepsie silently waddled into the room.

Hepsie was very grateful that Lady Inbar had offered to sit by Valeriya’s bedside. Her husband had been an absolute nightmare and Hepsie was glad to have finally convinced him to get some sleep. He was constantly pawing at her, stroking her hair, trying to cover her with more blankets as Valeriya’s fever soared.

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“How does the Countess be doin’ then yer Ladyship”, Hepsie queried.

Varda gazed over to the bed at the still figure.

“She seems to be resting a lot better since that husband of her’s has left”, the tone of Varda’s voice led Hepsie to believe that they shared a similar opinion of the Earl.

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She looked over at the pale figure of the Countess. She was so pallid one could believe she were dead except for the gentle movement of her chest and an occasional whimper of pain. She had lost a lot of blood. Hepsie was surprised she had survived a wound such as hers. They were lucky that it had been such a frigid night last night, the cold had stilled the bleeding. Otherwise she would not have been laying here before them now.

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It had taken what seemed like an age to warm her, so frozen was her body. Especially with Radomir hanging over Hepsie, criticising her every action. She had, had to stay by Valeriya’s side, Radomir declaring the woman’s rank over the other beings who sorely needed her attention. Steen had been given hasty instructions of the procedure and gone with some of the other’s to try and save the Father.

So Valeriya had been gently bathed in luke-warm water while Hepsie and Varda rubbed at her limbs, trying to impart some heat back into them. She had carefully sewn up the dreadful wound on the woman’s neck, making the stitches as neat as possible, while Radomir barked that she had better not leave a scar.

Finally some warmth had returned and her heartbeat had strengthened. But then the fever had bloomed, leaving Valeriya soaked in sweat, weakly thrashing in her bed.

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What she really needed was blood, but Hepsie did not now how to give it. She had seen the surgeons once before draining blood from an ill person, to rid them of evil humours, but never before had she heard of someone putting blood back in. It was a river that ran one way. All they could do now was wait, bathing her face and trying to give her some water and hope that she would be well again.

Varda turned to her, her face full of concern, her fine brows curving in worry over her eyes.

“Do you think she will survive?”, she asked in a whisper, as though even mentioning the thought out loud were enough to condemn the sick woman.

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Hepsie did not like to lie, but she also knew that there wasn’t a lot of hope for the people at this time. This was the third attack and now everyone was confined to the ships, unable to leave for fear of death. They had not gotten much of a start on planting crops for the next year, so they were going to be hard-pressed to ration the food they had left. If the first year had been hard, the second was going to be worse. The people needed whatever hope they could get.

“Well I don’t rightly be knowin’ yer ladyship, but I am thinkin’ it’s bein’ way to soon to give up hope yet. She may be pullin’ through yet… she was in good health before…”, she trailed off. It just seemed so much effort to constantly reassure everyone and keep a cheerful smile on her face. She wanted to lock herself in her room and see nobody for a week. But she knew that was not possible. She was needed.

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“What do you think happened to them out there? Do you think what the Earl is saying is true, that Father Harndall did this to her?”, Varda asked, a little of the strength coming back into her voice.

“Well yew not what I be sayin’ to those there accusations he be havin’… bollocks!”, she blushed slightly remembering she was talking to a lady, “I mean… the Father is bein’ a very good man, he would never do such a thing”.

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“Beside which”, she said after contemplating for a moment, “he’s bein’ sharin’ those marks on his neck just the same as her, though her’s be far worse and more hasty it looks like. No… I be thinkin’ it’s bein’ something to do with that man that attacked poor Darina. She was havin’ them same marks on her dear neck too. An’ poor sweet Nelly. There’s somethin’ not right about this whole thing… what sort of man goes about bitin’ good people on the neck”.

And the blood, she thought. Too much blood was gone from their bodies, it was unnatural.

Thinking of Darina she hoped the woman was alright. She had gone to stay with her to help with the baby, after the attack. Darina had been quite ill, barely able to feed the baby, so she had lain in bed for many days while Hepsie ran the house. But she had been much better when Hepsie had to leave for the ships, as the Queen herself’s time was approaching.

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“Arright then, yer lady… I best be headin’ out to check on those others. Yew just let me know if anythin’ be happenin’ with this poor dear”, she paused, “And try to be keepin’ that husband o’ hers out if yew can… he only seems to be makin’ her worse”.

As she turned and walked out the door a wave of exhaustion washed over her. It was really too much for one woman. Her ankle was throbbing incessantly and the weight of her belly was dragging at her back. If only she could have had Darina and Gena to help her, both were sensible women and irreplaceable in their own ways.

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She paused to poke her head in to the room where Morven lay. There was nothing more she could do for the woman, all that was left was to wait as her life slowly ebbed away.

Alexis had refused to leave her side, having only a cursory glance at his sons. Hepsie had tried to convince him to come and see them, perhaps hold them for a while but he had refused. She tried to tell him gently that they might not survive and he should see them while he still could, but he had only closed his eyes, grasping Morven’s clammy hand in his and asked her to please leave. Now he sat beside her, dozing in his chair.

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She carefully closed the door with a click. Now she would go check on those babies and see how they were doing. She had much to do before she would sleep tonight.

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Garrick does not have the morning he expected

“The sun is rising”, Cordell remarked unnecessarily.

The length of his sword was stained red by the eery morning light, as though it had already been rammed deep into the body of his enemies.

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Garrick could see that the sun was bloody well rising. In fact he was entirely sick of Cordell’s incessant commentary on everything. And as for waving that ruddy sword around everywhere like he was some sort of ancient hero, it was really a bit much.

Garrick had been enjoying an extremely pleasant sleep indeed, free from the terrible nightmares that had haunted him for months on end. His best friend these days was a frothy tankard of ale. A few of these (well perhaps slightly more than a few) and no longer could she scamper through his dreams, tangling her tiny cold fingers in his beard. He was free.

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Now he had been wrenched from his warm bed, dragged from the arms of his sleeping wife and made to tramp around in the cold for hours on end, when probably the good Father and the Countess were holed up in some warm corner of the ship, while he had to search about the whole blasted countryside for them.

He stole a quick glance at Radomir, though the sideways movement of his eyes in their sockets caused an intense flash of pain and nausea to ramble through his body.

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The man’s craggy face was set in an impenetrable expression, although if one looked closer they could notice the tiny movement just above his massive jaw as he rapidly clenched and unclenched his teeth.

Garrick would never have believed it to be true, a priest! And the Countess who had always seemed to him to stand above them all, unreachable on her pedestal of purity, looking down in vague amusement as they clumsily stumbled through their dirty mortal lives.

He had not noticed anything strange between them, but Cindra with her sharp eyes had remarked that the kiss the Father had given her that night under the mistletoe was anything but pure.

Thinking of Cindra he realised that in fact she had not been sleeping when he left, but sitting in up in bed, her eyes red and bleary. When he had kissed her farewell her face had been warm and clammy, sweaty curls plastered to her forehead. Perhaps she had another nightmare, he mused. She seemed to be sleeping very badly these days. It was probably the baby, it was more restless with each new day, and he knew it would not be long till it came.

And here he was parading about in the early hours of the morning with a thumping head and a churning stomach. He sniffed with irritation.

“Ouch!”, he cried causing Steen to turn to him with an inquiring look on his honest face.

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“I have icicles growing inside my nose it’s so damn cold out here!”, he exclaimed in annoyance.

Steen snorted, “Yes me ‘Lord, fer sure it’s bein’ terrible cold out here”.

He winked at Garrick conspiratorially, chuckling softly, “And I must be confessin’ I also have them nasty little bastards bein’ frozen up in this here nose of mine. Tis’ bein’ a most unpleasant experience. Not painful mind yew, but sort of prickly”.

“And my head Goodman, my poor aching head. Had I known we would be prancing about in the wee hours with swords and torches I would not have had so many tankards of ale last night”, he rubbed his head, scrunching his face into a grimace of pain for emphasis.

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Steen nodded sagely, an expression suggesting that he was remembering the mornings he had awoken in a similar condition.

“Oh my God!”, they heard Cordell cry out further ahead and both he and Radomir broke into a frantic run.

Garrick’s sword was instantly from its sheath, the cold of weight of it reassuringly in his grip. His tender conditions forgotten he ran forward, his feet pounding into the soft snow beneath.

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He saw what had drawn Cordell’s outburst lying up ahead, half sheltered from the snow by the folds of the worker’s tent. They were together, it was as he had expected.

It was strange that they hadn’t chosen a warmer rendezvous spot. It had been a bitterly cold night and Garrick knew from personal experience that there were plenty of hiding places throughout the ships. Cindra and he had explored quite a number of them.

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Cordell and Radomir reached the huddled figures first, standing there for a moment. Garrick noticed Cordell’s sword drooping uselessly at his side. Then his addled brain realised how strange it was that the two had not responded to the men’s cries, how strange it was that they had lain there in the snow all through the night.

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Radomir gave a strangled sob and fell to his knees beside one of the figures.

Reaching the others Garrick saw that he was crouched beside the unmoving figure of his wife.

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Her skin had always been pale, but now it was completely bleached, the only colour leant by the cuts and bruises that covered it. Her soft golden hair was spread about her still-beautiful face. Her arm was entwined with that of the Priest’s whose face was also drained of colour, but there were no visible signs of violence on him. He looked peaceful, his features soft as though he were merely sleeping.

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The whole scene was stained a bloody red by the pallid rays of the winter sun, struggling their way through the branches of the dead trees around.

“Oh God… Valeriya… what has he done to you?”, Radomir sobbed between his clenched teeth.

He had grabbed her limp bod, wrenching her arm from Harndall’s and pulling her against him.

Her head lolled away from the large body beside, back towards where Harndall lay and Garrick could see the large, wound on her throat.

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“My poor darling… my poor Valeriya. He will pay… he will burn in hell for what he did!”, Radomir was muttering, his face twisted into an ugly grimace as he began to roughly stroke her body with his large clumsy hands.

Suddenly her eyes snapped opened, and she gazed directly up at Garrick in mute horror.

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She moaned, recoiling from Radomir’s touch as he began to pull her closer to him.

“She’s alive… thank God she’s alive!”, Radomir cried yanking at her body as she lost conciousness again.

“We have to get her back to Goodwife Cade! She will know what to do. Come on you fool! Don’t just stand there like an idiot. Bring the torch this way!”, he growled to Steen who was standing nearby an expression of shock written across his features.

He pulled Valeriya roughly from the ground wrapping her arms around his neck.

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“Didn’t you hear me! Move you imbecile… the Countess needs assistance immediately”, he roared at Steen, clutching tightly at his wife.

She began to whimper, struggling weakly away from his broad chest but he only clasped her to him with more force.

“Don’t worry darling… you’ll be alright. Your Radomir is here now and I will take good care of you. He can’t hurt you anymore. You are mine again now”, he murmured to the shivering girl in his arms.

Garrick had to suppress a shudder staring at the wildly, possessive and disturbingly jubilant look that stole across Radomir’s face.

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“I trust you men can take care of his body”, he hissed, gazing with loathing at the forlorn crumpled figure of the priest.

“Come on, let’s go… you walk ahead so I can see where I am putting my feet!”, he ordered Steen and the they trudged off into the snow leaving Garrick and Cordell with the body of Harndall.

Garrick turned back towards Cordell who was still standing above Harndall, staring oddly at the corpse at his feet.

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Suddenly he straightened up and shouted, “Garrick! He just moved… he’s alive too! Only his breathing is very shallow, I did not even see it before”.

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He fell to his knees beside the priest, gently shaking his shoulders, “Father… Father, can you hear me?”.

There was no response, but Harndall’s hair slid away from his face a little and both men noticed the neat puncture marks in his neck.

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“It looks like things aren’t exactly the way they seem here”, Cordell said, once again irritatingly stating the obvious.

He began to carefully put his hands beneath Harndall’s prostrate body.

“Come on Garrick… will you help me lift him?”.

Garrick sighed and bent down, on creaking knees to get a grip on the man’s body. It had definitely not been the morning he had expected.

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