Chapter Thirteen

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Already three weeks had passed, by Riona's count, since she had left Cornwall and her village. Summer was truly upon them in the month of Maius, announced by bluebells that covered swaths of ground in their uproarious violet. Morgause had the windows and doors to the Orkney home thrown wide open to welcome in the warm scented air. Riona was elbow deep in barley dough, her forearms and apron covered in flour. Morgause was at the hearth, pulling a wooden spoon through a thick root stew that contained near the last of the winter storage. The older woman was recalling more memories of her time at Tintagel, and Riona was listening so rapt with attention that she leapt with a start when Gawain broke into the room, panting for lack of breath.

"Mother! Elaine-down the hill-baby!"

This string of words made no immediate sense to Riona, but Morgause's face went white as snow.

"She isn't due for another week!"

Gawain shook his head fervently, his hands on his knees as he caught his breath. "It's coming now."

Morgause moved quickly about the house, gathering supplies. She barked at Gawain to run back and tell the pregnant Elaine she was on her way. Riona followed Morgause like a shadow, trying to anticipate her needs.

"I don't know anything about birthing," Riona said anxiously. The women of her village had come to her only to prevent pregnancy. They did not trust the 'village witch' with their babes.

"You will by the time I'm done with you," said Morgause.

Riona found her traveling pack beneath Agravain's bed. It still contained the store of her own herbs and tinctures she had saved from her hut by the sea.

Morgause practically dragged her out of the house and sped down the hill toward the other farmsteads. Peasants went by in a blur, calling out support or alarm. The sound of a woman crying in pain drew them to a halt outside a small one-room hutch.

The roof was thatched with straw, and the walls were more mud than stone. Gawain waited at the arch that stood in place of a door, his face pale. A few sheep milled around, oblivious to the nervous energy in the air. Morgause pushed her son aside and assessed the situation.

Before them, on a small pile of rushes, sat a naked woman swollen with child. The blood of her waters had stained the floor beneath her body. Beside her, a gaunt-looking man held her hand with a fevered intensity, so focused on his wife, he barely noticed the women enter.

"Morgause," said the woman weakly, before another cry of pain shook her whole form.

"Hush, Elaine," said Morgause, kneeling beside the woman. "Riona, heat some water. Alun, you keep her strong." The pale-faced Alun nodded slowly and drew his wife's hand to his lips as she let out another whimper.

Riona rushed to do as she was told, filling the pot they had brought with them with water from the well outside. As she returned, she heard Morgause gently questioning the mother to be.

"How many pains since your waters broke?"

"I don't remember," Elaine said through a thick groan.

"Try to think."

"About-ungh-twenty."

Morgause opened a jar of ointment and began to rub it on Elaine's bare belly and thighs. It smelled strongly of rose petal.

"Riona give this to her," said Morgause, handing Riona a vile of brown liquid. Riona opened it and was immediately affronted by the smell of vinegar.

"She must drink it," said Morgause.

Riona nodded and set the vial gently against Elaine's lips. The woman gagged but soon the vial was emptied.

Morgause placed herself at Elaine's feet, gazing intently between the woman's legs. "Good, breathe deeply, Elaine," she said, interpreting something in the woman's anatomy that was beyond Riona's understanding. "Riona, a hot cloth please."

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