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|A man is rushing home ... for something?||
THE MOTHER'S BLESSING
The rain fell in sheets but he knew the road well so it slowed his pace but little. His hood was tied tightly about his head but the speed of his passage pushed the wet cloak over his shoulders. His undertunic was cold and heavy with rain that had seeped through his armor.
Well he knew the danger of travelling alone. His last two companions had stopped to deal with highwaymen at the ford. He had ridden through them and splashed across the ford without slowing. Now he rode without an escort for his need was great.
The same need had driven him to leave the field ere the battle was done, to give command to his brother. The battle was won. He would not abandon his men if the outcome had been in doubt, but he had left the field when the Northmen began to flee. That had been yesterday when the sun was still high and now he was on his fourth horse and well into the second night of his frantic ride. His desitination was near though and Mother providing he would be in time.
He crested the last rise and the town was a scattering of dim lights below him. He gallopped through it to the castle that bulked darkly on the crag above it. He only pulled up when he reached the gate at the bottom of the castle road.
"Hail the gate," he called. "It is I, Stephen."
"The King has returned!" shouted a voice inside. "Open for the King."
Stephen rode through the gate and started up the hill.
"Milord Stephen," called a guard from behind him, "The battle?..."
"'Tis won," he replied over his shoulder. He kicked the weary horse to a canter as cheering rose from the men.
Stephen passed through five more gates without slowing for the other guards were forewarned knew he was in haste.
He rode through the Citadel Gate and stopped before his castellan in the inner bailey. She had her armor on and her hair was pulled back. He knew that if he had arrived at any time of the day or night she would be in the same place, her face square and unchanging.
"The battle is done Sire?" she asked.
"Aye Ceecee, yesterday." Her name was Clarissa but he knew better than to use it.
"A dirty business it was, on that big muddy plateau above the Sirge north of Westerburg. I left ere it was done. Am I in time?"
"Aye Sire, but you cut it fine. They retired to the white room near an hour ago."
"Ah, Mother Provides. Help me down Ceecee. I am stiff and weary."
"You should have rested on the way Milord."
As she helped him from the saddle he told her of the men he had left on the road. She quickly detailed a patrol to help hunt the highwaymen and then followed him inside.
"The battle milord?" hinted Ceecee.
Stephen looked over his shoulder at her as he limped through the castle. "They near to had us," said Stephen. "Hamaar came at me himself. A great brute he was. I took his first blow on my shield and it still flung me from the saddle. I was saved by the mud. He slipped and his next blow went awry. Mine did not."
"You have done well then, Sire."
Stephen stopped. "Ah, it was horrible Ceecee. We lost as many to the mud as to the Northmen." He turned and continued on his way. "The Mother must weep at our folly."
"I think She allows us leeway in defense of our lands Milord." Stephen could tell Ceecee was uncomfortable with the conversation. "She must certainly weep at your beard though, it is truly hideous."
He smiled wryly at her change of topic. She was a soldier and war was her life. "Perhaps you're right. I wish you had been with us."
"I'm getting too old Sire."
Stephen was still laughing as they came to the door of the antechamber. He stopped and looked at Ceecee. "Mother Bless you Sire. I will send up some wine and some stew." She turned to go.
He grabbed her shoulder and turned her to look into her face. "Thankyou Clarissa," her eyes widened, "but make it tea. Wine will put me to sleep."
She turned without speaking and marched away. Stephen pushed open the door and entered the room.
The antechamber was fairly small. It had a scattering of wooden furniture, tapestrys on the walls and a large fire in the corner. He paid them little attention as he crossed to the other door.
The elderly priestess moved surprisingly quickly to block his way. "You may not enter yet Sire."
The door was thick but standing beside it he could hear muffled noises from within. "But..."
"No buts," said the little woman. "To go in like that would be an offense to the Mother." She reached up to rap her knuckles on his armored chest. "You must remove this and wash clean the grime of travel." She wrinkled her nose. "You smell like a wet horse."
"Is there time?" asked Stephen.
"Of course there is. I already have a bath prepared." She indicated a large tub by the fire.
"Hot already?" asked Stephen. "Did the Mother tell you I was coming?"
The old woman looked up and chuckled as she began to steer the still reluctant Stephen toward the steaming tub. "I've been keeping it hot for an hour. I knew you would be in frantic hurry if you got here. Sit down," she said. "I can't reach that top buckle." She pushed him into the chair by the tub and began to help him off with his armor.
"Elder Mother, you can't watch me bathe."
The old nun snorted derisively. "I promise to keep my hands to myself."
Ceecee arrived with food while Stephen was in the bath. She laughed raucously at his situation and would have stayed to watch his discomfiture but the old priestess fiercely shooed her out, no more intimidated by the castellan than by the King.
Once cleaned and fed Stephen was less frantic but his whole body felt like jelly. He allowed the priestess to push him into the simple, white robe which she said was all the Mother required and didn't complain when she stopped him in front of the door.
"Are you ready?" she asked.
"I thought I was ready when I got here," he replied, no longer so sure.
The corners of her mouth rose slightly. "All will be well," she said, and pushed open the door.
It was called the white room for a reason. The walls were whitewashed and the flagstones were very light in color. The door to the smokeless stove in the corner was the only black in the room. All occupants of the room were wearing the same simple white robe as Stephen. Lisa was reclined on the birthing chair, her face red and sweaty, and her eyes shut. She was gasping for breath. Stephen was frightened by what he saw. He had expected to see pain but he thought it would be equally mixed with exuberance. He was shocked by the agony and exhaustion that seemed to have permeated her very soul.
Stephen thought something must be going wrong but the women in the room seemed excited rather than worried. One of the Mother's representatives was sitting and holding Lisa's hand. One was pouring a glass of water from the pitcher on the table in the corner and two others were seated at the foot of the chair. Stephen looked down and shuffled his feet uncomfortably. Lisa must have sensed something for when Stephen looked up again she was watching him. She said nothing to him but smiled weakly and then beckoned him over.
Stephen was instantly contrite. With all she was going through he had been afraid to approach her. His fear was replaced by embarrassment as he hurried over, fell to his knees beside Lisa and gently raised his hand to push the hair off her face. She moved much more quickly than he did, grasping his beard with her left hand. Lisa suddenly seemed much less helpless. Stephen cried out sharply and much to his regret tried to pull away. Lisa had fencers wrists and did not yeild an inch. She instead pulled his face much closer to her own.
"You said you would be here." She spoke slowly.
"Lisa, I got her as soon as I could." Stephen gently tried to unhook her fingers from his beard but they were irretrievably laced laced through it. She gave a tug both to shut him up and to shake his hand from her own.
"We were supposed to be doing this together," she hissed. "Now at the first hint of trouble I find myself all alone."
"It was more than just a hint ..." Stephen began becoming frustrated with the unfairness of the situation but Lisa tugged on his beard to silence him again. Stephen silently resolved to shave it off at the first opportunity.
"Could you not find time in three months for one quick visit or even to send me a note?" she asked.
Stephen licked his lips while trying to think of an answer. He never got an opportunity, however, for Lisa suddenly tensed her whole body in a contraction. She did not cry out but Stephen did for he had abruptly lost nearly half of his straggly beard.
He staggered backwards to the wall and was about to yell when he realized what was going on. He wanted to help but had no idea what to do and so ended up standing forlornly in the corner. Everyone was occupied with their own tasks and aside from the occasional amused look were content to ignore him. He wanted to leave but he had made such an effort to arrive in time.
After an endless minute the old priestess came over to him. Stephen noticed that she was not trying to hide her smile. He was not receiving a great deal of respect in this room. She spoke first, forestalling his bitter comment.
"You must go to her," she said. "Think how she must have felt, forced to stay with the old and the weak when she would rather take the field. The waiting is harder than the fighting, paticularly in her condition."
"Elder Mother ... I know not what to say." Stephen was feeling hurt. "I certainly can not be any help. Perhaps I should wait in the other room."
"Now you are sulking." The woman was no longer smiling. "You have made her do most of this alone but this birthing is by no means finished. She needs you now as much as ever and if you abandon her now that child will never be truly yours.
"As to what to say; try telling her you love her." The priestess smiled wickedly and pushed him toward the bed. "That always used to impress me."
|Keet three||Gate Keepers Choice|
The Brass Cross
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