It was late, and I believed myself the only one awake in the house. Wet snow was falling thickly outside, and I had closed the dusty curtains against the night. When the wind blew, the snow splatted against the glass. I was half-wondering if we’d be snowed in by morning and if the wet snow would put an ice glaze on the grapevines. I looked up abruptly, my Wit-sense stirred, and a moment later the door eased open. Molly peered around.
“What is it?” I asked, sudden anxiety making my query sharper than I intended. I could not recall the last time she had sought me out in my study.
She clutched at the door frame. For an instant she was quiet, and I feared I had injured her feelings. Then she spoke through a held breath. “I’m here to break my word.”
“I can’t pretend I’m not pregnant anymore. Fitz, I’m in labor. The baby will come tonight.” A faint smile framed her gritted teeth. An instant later she took a sudden deep breath.
I stared at her.
“I’m certain,” she replied to my unasked question. “I felt the first pangs hours ago. I’ve waited until they were strong and closer together, to be sure. The baby is coming, Fitz.” She waited.
“Could it be bad food?” I asked her. “The sauce on the mutton at dinner seemed very spicy to me and perhaps—”
“I’m not sick. And I didn’t eat dinner, not that you noticed. I’m in labor. Eda bless us all, Fitz, I’ve had seven children that were born alive, and two miscarriages in my life. Don’t you think I know what I’m feeling now?”
I stood slowly. There was a faint sheen of sweat on her face. A fever, leading her delusion to deepen? “I’ll send for Tavia. She can go for the healer while I help you lie down.”
“No.” She spoke the word bluntly. “I’m not sick. So I don’t need a healer. And the midwife won’t come. She and Tavia think me just as daft as you do.” She took a breath and held it. She closed her eyes, folded her lips, and her grip on the door’s edge grew white-knuckled. After a long moment, she spoke. “I can do this alone. Burrich always helped me with my other births, but I can do this alone if I must.”
Did she mean that to sting as much as it did? “Let me help you to your nursery,” I said. I half-expected her to swat at me as I took her arm, but instead she leaned on me heavily. We walked slowly through the darkened halls, pausing three times, and I thought I might have to carry her. Something was deeply wrong with her. The wolf in me, so long dormant, was alarmed at her scent. “Have you vomited?” I asked her. And “Do you have fever?” She didn’t answer either question.
It took forever to reach her chamber. Inside, a fire burned on the hearth. It was almost too warm in the room. When she sat down on the low couch and groaned with the cramp that took her, I said quietly, “I can bring you a tea that would purge you. I really think—”
“I labor to bring forth your child. If you won’t be any help, then leave me,” she told me savagely.
I couldn’t stand it. I rose from my seat beside her, turned, and walked as far as the door. There I halted. I will never know why. Perhaps I felt that joining her in madness would be better than letting her go there alone. Or perhaps that joining her would be better than remaining in a rational world without her. I changed my voice, letting my love rule it. “Molly. Tell me what you need. I’ve never done this. What should I bring, what should I do? Should I call some of the women to attend you?”
Her muscles were tight when I asked; it was a moment before she answered. “No. I want none of them. They would only titter and simper at the foolish old woman. So only you would I have here. If you can find the will to believe me. At least within this room, Fitz, keep your word to me. Pretend to believe me.” Her breath caught again and she leaned forward over her belly. A time passed, and then she told me, “Bring a basin of warmed water to bathe the child when he comes. And a clean cloth to dry him. A bit of twine to tie the cord tight. A pitcher of cool water and a cup for me.” And then she curled forward again, and let out a long, low moan.
And so I went. In the kitchen I filled a pitcher with hot water from the simmering kettle always kept near the hearth. Around me was the comfortable, familiar clutter of the kitchen at night. The fire muttered to itself, crocks of dough were slowly rising for the next day’s bread; a pot of brown beef stock gave off its fragrant aroma near the back of the hearth. I found a basin and filled a large mug with cold water. I took a clean cloth from a stack there, found a big tray to put it all on, and loaded it. I stood for a long moment, breathing in the serenity, the sanity of an organized kitchen in a quiet moment. “Oh, Molly,” I said to the silent walls. Then I bared my courage as if I were drawing a heavy blade, hefted the tray, balanced it, and set off through the quiet halls of Withywoods.