“Houf! Richeau, the baby is coming. I really think it’s coming!”
Another contraction rolled through her belly, stealing her breath and leaving her back aching.
“Michelle, we’ll get you inside then, come on, let’s let the doctor know.”
The maternity ward of Bastia’s largest hospital, Saint-Exupery, had more runes in the room than Michelle had ever seen all in one place in her life. The suppression systems reassured her, ensuring she wouldn’t lash out strongly if the pain of labour overwhelmed her. The runes magic sounded like an impossibly large housecat, softly purring. Each lulling roll of sound promising her she couldn’t hurt anyone, no matter how fierce the pain might be. She gave her husband’s hand a squeeze, and smiled at him.
Another contraction rolled through her, and she gasped. The attendant nurse took her gently by one arm, and directed her husband with the other: “Let’s get her up on the bed, and ready for the doctor. Your contractions are about two minutes apart. I’m going to check your dilation. Please don’t push yet, alright?”
“I don’t think I’m in control of that, nurse!” said Michelle.
“Even so, try not to push just yet. We’ll get the doctor here as soon as possible.”
The next contraction made Michelle cry out, and motes flew from her clenched fists, bright violet sparks of pain that squirted out from between her fingers like fireflies. The runes around the room throbbed once, and the motes vanished, cancelled out by their enchantment.
“If you can put your hands on the runes here and here,” said the nurse, gesturing to the padded handles on the side of the bed. The leather was embossed and tooled with the rune-lines that would channel and shape the magic fed. “And anytime it hurts, or you need to focus your magic, you push it out there here, alright? These feed right back into the runes that help keep everyone safe. Can you do that for me, Michelle?”
Michelle gasped and nodded, as her insides gave a quivering shudder, and a squeezing pain rolled up her back. Richeau took hold of her shoulders, as he’d been told, and kissed her temple. “You’ll be okay, beautiful. Not long now. The doctor’s coming.”
She smiled back up to him, and closed her eyes. “He’d better hurry,” she whispered. “This one’s impatient as Daddy. It wants to meet us.”
Richeau gave a soft, fond laugh, and kissed her forehead. “Soon. We’ll be here.”
“Baby wasn’t moving much the last few days,” admitted Michelle. “I was getting a little worried. But it’s certainly moving now!”
She channeled a bit of magic through her body, feeling the way the baby moved with the warmth of its mother’s love. She smiled at the flutter of a kick. “Houf! Definitely moving,” she said.
“I saw that!” said Richeau, grinning. “Eager to be free!”
Michelle tried to laugh, but another contraction rolled through her, longer this time. She channeled the pain through her hands and into the runes, and groaned in relief as she felt her magic sucked up into the leatherwork, and distributed from rune to rune woven and welded and embossed into the bed.
“Oh!” said Richeau, rubbing his nose. “Pine. I’ve never smelled so much, not even that time you burned your hand.”
She nodded beneath him. “Hurts worse, my love. Hurts– houf! Hurts different. Please tell the doctor to hurry?”
“I’m coming,” said the doctor, as he strode in. “Let’s have a look, nurse?”
They lifted up her gown, and the nurse peered down. “Looks about eight centimetres, Doctor. Good news, Michelle! I think you’re going to have a baby today.”
Michelle laughed softly. “I think I had better. This one isn’t going to wait.”
The doctor stepped up and touched a stethoscope to her belly. “Let’s see how baby is doing, shall we? Can I ask you to hold your breath a few seconds, and try not to let any magic free?”
“I’ll try, Doctor,” said Michelle. She took a deep breath, and held it as the cool metal slid up her belly.
Be good in there, little one. You get to meet mama soon, she thought to herself. A surge of love rolled through her heart for her child-to-be, and she smiled as she felt the life inside her stir slowly.
“No magic, please?” repeated the doctor.
Michelle nodded, and flooded her love through her hands, pouring that too into the suppression runes in the handles of the bed.
The doctor moved the stethoscope, and then again, frowning in concentration as he listened. “Breathe,” he said softly. “Hold again.”
He moved the stethoscope once more, frowned again. “Breathe.”
“Doctor?” said Michelle.
“Just breathe please. Now hold?”
She did as told, an icy finger of anxiety worming through her spine until her baby gave another shift. The motion made her gasp involuntarily.
“Baby’s definitely ready to move, Doctor!” said Michelle. “Please, may I push?”
“Please try to hold back, yet,” said the Doctor. He stood, and touched the Nurse’s arm. “Come with me, I need to see to some things. Michelle, just hold on. No rush to the baby, don’t push yet,” he said over his shoulder.
The doctor and nurse stepped out of the room, and the next contraction rolled through Michelle. She gave a soft cry, and Richeau swept his fingers through her hair. “Sssh, it’s alright. We’re here, we’re safe. Just breathe, Michelle. I’m here with you.”
Tears sprung from her eyes, and she smiled up at him through the pain. “I love you, Richeau.”
“I love you too, Michelle. And our baby.”
She beamed up at him through her tears, and the wash of love she felt sent another gentle kick through the infant inside her.
“Get a Knight and the Circle in,” said the doctor. “I couldn’t pick up a heartbeat. Could be positioning, could be something else. Baby’s only moving when the mother’s weaving magic.”
The nurse ducked her head. Trained and drilled in this possibility, she turned without a word and scurried down the hallway, and into the Knight’s station. The Knight was a new one, the polish on his sun still fresh and new where it had replaced the shield on his collar. He looked up as the nurse entered.
“Doctor says we’ve got a maybe in maternity,” said the nurse. “You’re Knight Gireaux, right?”
“Yes, that’s right. What do you mean by a ‘maybe’?”
“A possible animated stillbirth. Is this your first?”
“Necromancy?” hissed the knight, rising to his feet. His hand fell to his mace, and the nurse frowned at him. “My first what?”
“Nevermind,” snapped the nurse. “Take your hand off your weapon. This is a hospital. We need you stationed outside the maternity ward, please. Don’t enter unless you’re called in. I’m going to send word to the Circle.”
“What do they have to do with this?” said the Knight. “Necromancy’s our problem!”
“We don’t know that it’s necromancy, and you’re not going in there until you’re called in. Until we know anything for sure, it’s a Circle problem. Now I’m going to send word. Don’t go into the maternity room. You do that, and you’ll never work a day in Saint Exupery again, you understand?”
“Yes, I do, but-“
“But nothing, Knight. You set foot in there without say-so, you’re out on your tabard. Go station yourself by the maternity door. And keep your damn hand off your weapon.”
Gireaux frowned at the nurse, but she was already leaving, jogging down the hall with her face set in a tight line. He stepped out of the office and walked up the hallway where she’d come from. Cries of labour filtered softly through the thick doors, long moans and huffs of breath, punctuated by the occasional sharp shriek.
Neela Nalee swept around the corner leading to the maternity ward, her gown a tasteful emerald embrace of silk and crinoline, sleekly cut to drape from her willowy frame. It was a sign of how terribly things had gone that not one eye so much as turned her way as she approached.
All eyes, instead, were on the doors leading to the maternity room. One of the two doors lay ajar, the hinge cracked and bulged outward. Inside, a frantic and raw voice screamed: “Don’t you touch my baby! Don’t any of you touch her!”
Another blast rumbled through the marble floor underfoot. Neela closed her eyes, feeling the anger and grief of the blast roll through her heart, and she drew a shaky breath. Carry your tears until their time, she reminded herself. Carry them as kindly as your smiles, and plant them like seeds, where they will grow sweet and true. This is not the time or the place for your tears, this field of grief belongs to another. Help her sow.
Her eyes swept over the people gathered around the door, anxious faces frowning. The nurses and doctors to one side were familiar to her, standing with practiced patience born of familiar training. A knight stood by the door, his face angry. He’s angry, Neela thought. He doesn’t yet understand her grief, and Saints will it that he’ll never know.
A nervous man in civilian clothing stood near the knight, anxiously trying to peer over the knight’s shoulder. The knight was keeping the man away from the door. Neela’s eyes favored him with a warm look. That’s the father, or someone close to her.
Neela gathered her heart around her breath, one deep inhalation, one deep exhalation. Her breath carried the scent of tulips and rain, and fireweed flowers from her garden in the Cathedral. To her, they were the smells of love and concern, of worry and confidence the sun would rise again tomorrow.
The man was so preoccupied with the angry cries of his wife that he did not notice Neela until her gentle hand slipped into his, and clasped it. When he turned in surprise, she stepped in close, her head and eyes low, body language speaking volumes of calm and concern.
“Hello,” she said. “I’m Neela. I’m with the Church.”
“Richeau,” he replied, his eyes darting between her and the ajar door.
“Is that your wife in there?” she asked. She knew the answer as her thumb brushed his wedding ring, but it was more important to make eye contact, to look him in the eyes, and let him see her unguarded heart through her gaze.
“I– yes,” he said, stammering, caught in a moment of mental whiplash between the fury of his wife, and his own worry for his child.
The Knight at the door gawked at her. He’d seen her in passing in the Cathedral, and those like her, the golden circle within a circle upon her necklace signalling the height of her office.
“What’s her name?” she asked Richeau.
“Michelle,” he replied.
“I’d like to go in, and speak with her,” said Neela gently. “May I have your permission?”
“It’s… she’s very upset,” said Richeau. “Something– she won’t let us near our daughter.”
Bear no armor on my heart, Neela thought. Bear everything. Allow every mark, every pain and scar. Feel all, accept all, reject none. I accept this grief like water, I accept this pain like air. I am a tree, planted from the seed of a tear. I will bear compassion on the boughs of my heart’s tree. I will give love to every outstretched hand, and I will offer it to the earth if none have need.
She took his other hand in her own, and gave a very gentle squeeze. “What is her favorite tea?”
The knight at the door broke in with a frown. “Tea? There’s no time for tea! She’s destroying the room, and we need to stop her. Right now!”
Neela turned her head towards the knight, and inclined her head. “Inside that room, Knight, is a mother having the worst day of her life,” she said. Her voice held a gravitas that wiped the anger from Gireaux’s face.
She glanced towards the door, and back towards Gireaux. “Nothing in that room except the people inside it are irreplaceable. Nothing in that room is worth making this moment of her life one hair’s worse. She won’t hurt anyone in there, Knight. She’s safe in there, and we’re safe out here, and the worst possible thing you can do in this moment is for you to go in there. Please keep these people safe, so they can go back in and do their job when the time is right. Can you please move everyone back?”
He blinked at her, absorbing her words, and his hand fell away from his mace-handle. Shame washed across his face, and so she smiled at him sweetly. “It’s fine. You did a good job, Knight. Keep doing it, alright?”
“Yes ma’am,” he said, and spread his arms, walking back the doctors and nurses from the door. “Please, a little more space from the door. I don’t want anyone hurt if the hinge cracks again.”
Neela turned her attention back to Richeau. “Her favorite tea, please. May I take her some?” She was already stepping back from the door, a very gentle pull of her hand guiding the man away from danger. “Can you tell me how she likes it best?”
The husband gave an uncertain nod of his head to her question. “She likes orange tea. From Venicia. With some honey, and cream.”
It was a short path from the maternity ward to the nurse’s station, a path Neela knew by broken heart a dozen times over. She led Richeau there, listening intently. “You’ll have to help me make it the way she likes,” she said with a hopeful smile. “So I get it right. Did you bring it with you?”
“Here, in my bag. For after the baby was b-” he stammered, and glanced back at the door. “For after our baby was born.”
Her hand tightened very gently on his. “Help me make the tea,” she said softly. “So we get it right.”
Each breath she let free carried a bit more of her heart with it, the motes carefully dissolved upon her tongue, let free in the sweet breath. She chose oranges and rain, the smell of a Venician orchard she’d known as the very youngest of girls, the smell of home. Richeau closed his eyes, and took a deep, steadying breath, not knowing that every breath carried with it her love and care.
When he spoke, this time, it was with concern and certainty in his voice: “I have it here, in my bag. She likes it with a spoon and a half of honey, and a pour of cream until it looked yellow as the kitchen curtains.”
“You tell me when,” said Neela, and accepted the pouch of tea from him.
They stood in silence as the tea ball steeped in a cup of hot water, and Neela carefully drizzled honey into the cup. Silence is the space between breaths, between heartbeats, between life and death. Silence is the ebb to life’s flow, and I will make of myself a tide. Saints guide my heart, and lift it in love, Saints give me silence, to listen, and feel.
She poured cream next, carefully, until Richeau spoke up. “There, that’s right. Like that.”
“Thank you, Richeau.”
“Our daughter– she isn’t alright, is she?” asked Richeau.
Neela gave the tea a gentle stir, and met his questing eyes with her own. “No,” she said, very softly. “But will you tell me her name?”
Richeau’s face slowly crumpled. “Giselle. We were to name her Giselle. For her great-grandmother, on her mother’s side.”
She set the tea down and embraced him, pulling him close in a chaste, fierce hug. “That’s a beautiful name,” she said. “And it wasn’t wasted. I promise you. It’s a name with a promise. Of a mother and father and family who love her.”
He broke into a sob, and she cupped a hand to his cheek, the perfume on her wrist bearing sandalwood and honey. Like a tree I blossom, and offer sweetness to the air, the promise of safe harbour to all hearts. May I receive them as the blossom does the bee. May I know joy even to bear this burden. My heart is a strong tree, and it is heavy with the burden of love. Saints, may I bear all, Saints, guide my loving heart.
“When this is over,” said Neela softly. “In a few days, after you’ve taken some time with your wife, I want you to both come to the cathedral. Tell them you’re here to see Sister Nalee. Day or night. My door is always open. Okay?”
He nodded dumbly, and she pressed her forehead to his. “Grieve. That’s what a good father would do.”
He nodded again, tears running freely down his cheeks, a sob running up his belly and choking in his throat. She let him breathe, let him gather himself under the weight of his grief, and then gave his arm a very gentle squeeze.
“Let me take this tea to your wife, and talk to her. When she’s ready to see you, she’ll call for you. You need to be there when she needs you. Can you do that for me? Promise me you won’t leave?”
“I won’t leave,” he said immediately, conviction rising underneath his weeping. “I promise. I would never.”
A tremulous smile washed over Neela’s face, and she gave his hand one more squeeze, before slowly pulling away. “Good. I’ll be back. I promise. Come wait near the doors.”
She plucked up the tray, and took it in both hands, and stepped back into the hallway. A few nurses who’d seen her before nodded her way, sad eyes following her tea tray, or making grateful eye contact with her. In her wake trailed Richeau, tears streaming down his face.
“Knight, please open the door. Just enough to let me through,” she said softly. “Shut it gently behind me. Take care not to grind or slam it.”
“What about you?” Gireaux said. “It’s dangerous in there. She’s already tried to hurt three people.”
“She’s not trying to hurt anyone, Knight,” said Neela. “She’s trying to protect her baby, like any loving mother would. That’s all. I’ll be fine.” She lifted the tea tray in her hands. “Keep the faithful protected, Knight. Please let me see to her heart.”
Reluctantly, Gireaux reached for the door. “At your word, I’ll be in there,” he promised her.
“Thank you, Knight.”
She stepped through the door.
The delivery room was a mess. The shattered remains of a table left wood splinters strewn across the floor. The shelving had been shoved back, loose items on the counters in disarray over the floor. The suppression runes in the room had done their job admirably, damping down a new mother’s protective fury and fear to nothing more than a few bits of broken and disarrayed furniture.
Neela blew out a breath of cinnamon and nutmeg, letting out her anxiety and fear. Saints, guide my love, thread my heart through the eye of the needle, and beyond the reach of peril and doubt. Saints, guide my love, make of me a thread, to mend every torn heart.
On the bed, Michelle lay cradling and cooing at her little girl. She shot a suspicious glance up at Neela, then relaxed fractionally as Neela lifted the tea tray, and smiled gently at her. “I brought some tea,” she began. “Your husband told me how to make it for you.”
Michelle’s eyes softened a little. “He did? Where is he?”
Neela set the tray gently on the roll-up table, and slowly pushed it all towards Michelle, keeping herself on the far side of the table to avoid spooking the mother. Michelle’s protective clutch around the baby in her arms tightened, and Neela pushed the table over to her bedside the last foot by extending her arms, approaching no closer.
“He’s nearby. He’s fine. Just a little emotional right now.”
“Well he should be emotional! He was trying to take my baby! They all were! You’re here to take her too, aren’t you!” shouted Michelle. Motes of magic writhed around her, the runes in the walls and ceiling and bed all drinking them greedily in, but none were able to keep up with the intensity of the moment. They could muffle the magic, but not entirely deaden it.
Neela opened her hands. “I’m not here to take your lovely Giselle away. My name is Neela. I’m here with the Church. Is it okay if I sit? Would you like some company with your tea?”
Michelle clutched her child tight, and Neela’s heart bent like a willow in a gale as she felt a mother’s love and fear wrap around the infant’s leg, and cause it to kick. “How did you know her name?”
“Your husband told me,” said Neela, smiling sadly. “Said she’s named for your grandmother, right?” She righted a toppled chair, and sat smoothly down into it, facing Michelle. Neela kept a few feet of distance, and faced the woman at a slightly oblique angle.
“That’s right,” said Michelle, her voice quavering in fear, as her hand stroked the blue scalp peeking out from the linens in her arms. “Why are you here?”
Thread my heart through her fear, give her no cause to worry. A heart in pain will shy from a touch untrusted. You must show trust first. Choose vulnerability. Open your heart, your eyes, show pain the truth of you, and accept the truth of other’s pain.
The tears welled in Neela’s eyes easily. “They let me come here to talk to mothers,” Neela said softly. “I was told a very long time ago I would never have a child. So once every few months I’m here to talk to new mothers. So I can help them if they want it, or just keep them company.”
She spoke with a sincerity as raw in its grief as Michelle’s, a mournful note in her voice she’d never feign, and could never feign. She turned her tear-filled eyes to Michelle without shame. She gave Michelle a sad smile, and gestured to herself. “I can’t be a mother, so helping out other mothers is the next best thing. Is Giselle your first?”
“Yes,” said Michelle softly, some of the tension easing out of her voice, though her eyes were still wary. “She’s my first. My perfect baby girl. Look at her. Wave hello, Giselle. What’s your name, Sister?”
Another wave of a mother’s love and pride rolled through Neela’s heart as Michelle’s magic moved. She felt Michelle’s love in the motion of her baby girl’s hand, the spasmic waving of muscles dead for days, made to move. Desperation, pride, love overlying a well of grief that threatened to swallow all the world.
“Neela,” she replied, and made no effort to staunch the tears that flooded from her eyes, or the crack in her voice and heart. “You have a beautiful baby girl. She must be so sweet. Not crying at all. Just happy at her mother’s breast.”
Michelle looked confused, and then nervously smiled. “Of course. Why wouldn’t she be? She’s content. Look, see how well she nurses? She’s a beautiful, healthy girl. Those terrible doctors. Can you imagine, trying to take her away?”
Neela swallowed, and smiled through her tears. “I can’t imagine letting anyone take my baby away, either. I would want to hold her close to the end of my days. I’d want her holding me at the end, beloved, as proud of me as I was of her, through every day we had together,” she said, weeping, beaming. “She looks so peaceful, sleeping. She nurses in her sleep?”
On cue, another wash of Michelle’s love coursed through the infant, carrying with it the faintest hints of doubt and confusion. Neela held her breath, and listened closely as the clumsy, uncoordinated attempts to make her baby suckle fell short. Weak lip-smacking was the best Michelle’s magic could manage.
“Oh yes, she nurses very well,” said Michelle, an edge creeping into her voice. “Very very well. But she’s very sleepy now. We’re both very tired.”
The smell of orange tea suffused the room, covering over the scent of pain and piss and afterbirth. Honey and cream and citrus wove their way gently into Michelle’s heart, and some more of her tension bled out as she gazed at her infant.
“How is her color?” asked Neela softly. “Healthy and pink?”
“N-no. She’s still very blue, but the midwife told me they all come out that way, and they take better color within a- a few minutes. I’m sure she’ll be flush tomorrow. Babies are like that. They’re so funny.”
Neela smiled as her heart broke anew, and took a handkerchief from her blouse to dab at her eyes. “They are,” she agreed. “Did she kick much, inside you? Every day?”
“Oh, yes, most every day. Almost every day,” Michelle said, gazing down at her baby. “Almost every day,” she repeated.
“That’s wonderful. I always wondered what that felt like. I know a poet, she told me once it’s like carrying your soul out in front of you, for nine months. Nothing in the world will ever matter more than that feeling, of life inside you. Moving.”
“That’s right,” agreed Michelle, and she smiled, gazing at her child.
Neela took a deep breath, and exhaled the scent of newborn skin, the smell of a live baby, a healthy one, warm and full of life, a feeling suffused with all the love she would ever know. “You’re going to be a wonderful mother,” said Neela. “Anyone could tell just by looking, how important your girl is to you.”
“She’s the new center of my world,” said Michelle, nodding. “She’s perfect.”
“What does her breathing sound like?” whispered Neela. “Newborns breath so soft, but so fast.”
“Oh, it’s very healthy,” said Michelle, holding the baby up to her ear and smiling. “So very soft.”
“Very fast?” asked Neela, reaching out slowly to put a sisterly hand on the woman’s ankle.
“V-very…” Michelle’s voice faltered, and Neela gave a very gentle squeeze.
“Do you have a lullabye for her?” whispered Neela.
There was a long, terrible moment of silence. Neela made herself watch as Michelle’s face crumpled, as that terrible grief slipped through the facade of denial. She watched the realization of the injustice and terror as Neela’s questions deconstructed her last, desperate hopes of taking a baby girl home today. Together, their hearts broke anew.
Make of every tear a seed, and help them sow, she prayed. Saints, guide my love.
Tears began to slowly spill from Michelle’s eyes, and she closed them, her tremulous voice singing over her child:
Wind on the rooftops, sun on the river
fish in the water, seeds in the ground
with sun’s set comes sleeping
and daybreak’s awaking
and we’ll all go singing
to the cathedral bell’s sound
As she sang, Neela rose smoothly to her feet, and took the home-spun blanket from its pride of place on the windowsill. She laid it across Michelle’s lap, her fingertips touching the wool. It was hand-made, roughly, but woven with care, and woven into the knots was a relative’s fierce love, perhaps a grandmother or aunt who’d taken the time to make the blanket and rune its knitting.
“Let’s lay her down to rest,” suggested Neela, when the song was done. “And you can keep her warm. This is a lovely blanket. Was it her grandmother’s work?”
Michelle nodded as she lapsed into silent weeping.
“She wove it to take you home in?”
Another silent, tearful nod from Michelle.
“Do you want to lay her down in this blanket, Michelle?”
Michelle hesitated, and then very slowly lowered the blue infant into the blanket, and her lap. An animal keening sound of grief rose from her throat, as Neela cupped her hands around Michelle’s, and helped her fold the blanket around her daughter.
Together, they swaddled her, and Neela helped her lay the baby down beside her on the bed. Michelle turned onto her side, stiff and sore from labor, and curled around her baby to weep.
Neela pulled a blanket over them, and sat down once more in the chair.
“I’m here for you,” she vowed. “As long as you need.”
The graveyard was a tiny one, nestled in the south side of the Cathedral, where the morning sun would fall across tiny grave markers. It was a quiet garden, with young fruit trees rising up between rows of small graves.
Michelle’s eyes were red from weeping, and her husband was ashen-faced, pale with the weight of grief he’d spilled in private while Neela had seen to his wife. They both stood in the gentle shadows of the fruit trees, holding each other, as Neela packed up a picnic basket. Most of the food had gone untouched, but that was never any surprise.
She took the basket into the crook of their arm, and smiled sadly at them. “You can come back here any time during the day. You can ask a Knight to lead you, or you can find your own way here when you’re ready. In the meanwhile, Alektos will watch over this place.”
They embraced her, Neela taking the time to touch her forehead to each in turn. “Remember what I said about grief,” she said. “It’s the mark we leave in our hearts to show someone they are loved. It’s the seed we plant to grow memories and love into something new and sweet. Giselle’s memory is planted here, but you can plant her memory anywhere you need to. Good places. Places she would like. Places she would play with her younger siblings. Places you need her to be.”
“Thank you, for everything,” said Michelle softly, her hand curled tightly around the silver chain she wore around her throat.
“You’re welcome,” said Neela solemnly. It was a tone that promised the truest form of the words: That it had been her pleasure to give.
They embraced her once more, and she saw them out, with promises to welcome them once more soon.
She waited until sundown to return to the graveyard. It had gone quiet, fallen into gentle shadow with the passing of the day, and Neela knelt before the grave. There, in the privacy of the quiet yard, could she press her face to the grass and weep while her hand clutched her belly.
Make of my grief, a seed, she prayed. May I bear all the weight of life upon me.