Medraut looked wearily upon the home of her brother, the large castle-like villa rising above her. It had just enough of a similar feeling to Camlann that she almost felt like she had not gone far enough. The rumors she had wondered about had exploded around her the day she had left. Suddenly everyone who was otherwise pleasant became nasty as though they had been acting, preparing for that moment. The wolves were put to the hunt. Although the pain of insult was almost too much, she left room to hope that it was magic that pushed these feelings. Careful plans and careful charms like a kindling fire waiting for the wind. Work had been endlessly slaved against her.
She wondered with tingling fear if the rumors of hate, of her supposed treachery had made it this far. With a deep breath, she forced herself into the courtyard. Bright colors of festivities streamed around her, the sunlight catching only happiness. Servants were busy transporting trays of food, plates, and goblets. Long tables were carefully placed with beautiful white and cream clothes over their tops. One servant was tasked with floral arrangements, baskets of flowers on their arms. In the middle in a bright red and gold doublet stood her brother.
As though he felt her presence or maybe a servant betrayed it, he spun around, his eyes glittering like jewels. "Sister!" he declared. "You have arrived just in time for festivities. I have arranged for the whole village to partake in celebration."
"What be the good news?" She asked, faking a smile.
He looked a bit surprised but his dazzling smile won out. "I sometimes forget how far away we are. My darling Fhina is with child! I have inviting all around us to celebrate this great news."
She hugged her brother tightly - perhaps tighter than was appropriate - in congratulations. "That is excellent news."
"And yet your face is dour! Come, change, and make yourself ready. None of that will be acceptable this evening!"
Although pained, her smile was more real this time. She followed his gesture with Ursula in tow, eager to be as happy as she once was. Ursula did her best to make her up proper, making only quick adjustments to her hair in lieu of a more formal hairstyle that would have consumed a good while. Dinadan seemed to be waiting outside her door and pounced, steering her to his wife. Fhina was just as happy, her cheeks rosy to match her fiery hair. She grabbed both of Medraut's hands and gave them a friendly squeeze.
"I am so glad you came," Fhina exclaimed, innocently thinking that Medraut had been invited rather than seeking refuge.
"Of course," Medraut replied with a motherly smile.
"Let me show you the deliciousness Dinadan has ordered for the feast. Did you know he got smoked pork?" She steered Medraut towards the kitchens. If she saw Medraut's pain, if she was ignoring it or trying to distract her, there was no recognition. Medraut smiled again at Fhina's oblivious nature. It was not a balancing personality for Dinadan but certainly, it was a match.
Fhina grabbed Medraut's hand suddenly and pressed it to her swollen belly. Her face lit up as it watched hers, eager for a similar expression. Medraut did her best to reciprocate, her embroidery falling from her lap. That tiny life was draining Fhina's own and she knew it.
The months that had passed had strengthened their friendship. Even though Fhina did not openly believe in magic, she could tell Fhina believed in her. Medraut had given Fhina the full story, toning down many of the Fae interactions, although not excluding them due to their importance. Her superstition allowed her to believe that there were "otherworldly" creatures in the wild. When openly spoke of magic, Fhina would discourage it as non-existent, claimers of power only tricksters and charlatans. Even when she said this in front of Medraut, there was always a look that was cast her way as if to say "but never you".
Medraut had avoided telling Fhina that the babe in her belly was consuming all her strength. She avoided telling Fhina this was her altered future: to die in childbirth. Nevertheless, her actions could not hide her thoughts, constantly mothering Fhina, getting her to drink strengthening potions. She couldn't be sure if her worrying rubbed off on Fhina or if she could feel herself. She had sent away the midwife and physician Dinadan had found her and pressed their jobs upon Medraut. Out of concern and the hope that she may in some way help, Medraut had readily agreed. She knew that she did not have the power to save Fhina but she did have the ability to make Fhina more comfortable until that point.
Like always, Fhina tried to hide her own fears behind forced happiness. Medraut suspected this was towards the thought that even if she passed, the baby might live. Such a life would be celebrated. Dinadan would have a child, hopefully a son.
Fhina had insisted upon the fresh air even though it was the middle of winter. Snow littered the ground and had been the only real motivator in helping Medraut accomplish getting three layers of coats and blankets wrapped around Fhina's torso. Fhina claimed that inside the castle was too stifling. Medraut argued that it was warm and safe. They would only be outside a little while, they agreed on finally.
The jolt in Fhina's belly of a kick nearly made Medraut jump in surprise. Her face lit up into a real smile, although one stemming from feeling foolish for jumping than about the joy of the child. Fhina searched her face and came up somewhat disappointed. She quickly brightened and rose to her feet. She jumped to the conclusion of Medraut's dark cloud as reminiscing on Arthur. Fhina, after all, did support hand-fasting much the way Medraut expected the people to. "Come with me. I hardly expect he can still be blind this long. I bet you he is feeling incredibly foolish!"
She took Medraut back into the house away from the fresh air and the cold to the warm room Dinadan had placed himself. He was standing, bent over a table with scrolls open on it, three men around him including his chief of staff. They immediately ceased their discussion at the presence of the women. Dinadan waved his hand to dismiss the men and turned a stare onto the ladies. His face said he was attempting to look stern but such an expression never sat right on his face that she almost expected him to burst out laughing from the effort.
"Husband, I should like to write a letter on your sister's behalf," Fhina demanded.
"Don't you ladies know your letters?" he countered.
In truth, well-born ladies were often presented with the opportunity but generally not very well or very in-depth. In the end, it might impress but was more likely to get a woman into trouble. Thus, they were often encouraged to participate in other activities. Certainly, for Medraut, with books and scrolls written by monks and poets, there was no written word for magic. It was a strictly oral tradition that was generally performed in the forests away from potential observers. So her skills were rusty, if not intangible. She wondered if Fhina had developed the skill or had also been deflected to some other activity.
"You are our recipient's friend. Your words can hold more influence than ours, you so well know. That and your writing is impeccable, my dear." Fhina flattered.
Dinadan held a sword more often than any other object in existence that the chores of managing a household were foreign to him, much less construct a letter. Nonetheless, his face softened, moved by her words. "And what would you have me write?"
"You must beg Arthur's forgiveness on Medraut's behalf, plead that he not misconstrue the situation. It was as much a mystery to her as it was to him. He must be able to observe the situation as an attack against her person and forgive the trespasses she is accused of. Even in her exile, her feelings have not waned and she is desirous to be permitted into his company. You men are the writers of love poems. Surely you may sing a beautiful tune on her behalf." By song, Fhina of course asked him to fill in spaces with his own observations of her lonely but loving state, to try and be extra coercive.
Medraut blushed at the embarrassment of the letter. She could image a letter than might fit that bill, of the musings on emotions it might contain, and dared to feel shameful for it. Fhina took her hand and squeezed it reassuringly. A letter on her behalf was better than continuing to exist without purpose in a sort of exile. By the hand-fasting, Medraut could not on her honor find another husband. They had only separated on false terms. In addition, the rumors that erupted at her leaving would prevent any potential suitor from pursuing. Thus a letter really was the only route forward.
"I shall address this letter as you wish," Dinadan consented. "But you must leave me in peace to write it as I will."
Fhina nodded in agreement. "Come, Medraut. Let us tell Cook that I greatly hope for pheasant on the table tonight."
Medraut smiled in amusement on Fhina's shifting cravings. Some were hard for the cook to obtain but with lots of coaxing and even verbal abuse from Medraut, the items always managed to appear before Fhina. She could not refuse her anything that made her stronger or more robust.
Medraut bolted upright in a heavy sweat. Her gaunt face looked beyond feverish but the sweat had led to a deep chill. Logically, a time by the fire was in order. However, her legs itched for action and she pushed herself out of bed, springing across the room for her robe. Her clothes all hung loosely on her. She had spent so much time worrying about someone else that she had neglected herself, spent many hours in study and meditation or in Fhina's company being her eager, pliant companion. Now it had all reached accumulation. Quickly and unceremoniously to a degree that would surely get Ursula frazzled, she wove her messy braid up onto her head and stuck a pin through it to hold it in place.
Slippers on her feet, she rushed through the hallway, catching herself with a hand on the wall as she nearly lost her footing. Fhina lived in her own private section of the villa in her own sort of tower. Medraut had been placed in the guest quarters for her own comfort but it put her nearly at the other end. So she hurried, not carrying if she woke anyone up along the way. They would be up soon enough.
Several of the maids eyeballed Medraut curiously as she burst into Fhina's apartments. They obviously did not carry her anxiety. Between the three of them, they had towels and bowls of water. "Milady just has had night terrors," one of them said reassuringly, appalled by Medraut's crazed look.
Medraut only nodded sarcastically as though she agreed. At a calmer pace, She wove her way around them and pushed herself to Fhina's bedside. Fhina smiled up at her like nothing was wrong, as if Medraut had come for a friendly visit. There was no fear in her eyes, no worry. Fae, thanks to Medraut's meticulous and subtle interference, clung to the exposed beams of the raised ceiling. None were of the particularly helpful sort, all curious and watching. Had she been more powerful, she might have been able to draw off their energy, make them into the helpful sort.
"Is it time?" Fhina asked the same way one might ask about a favorite meal.
Medraut said nothing herself. It was only the terror she had awoken with that had propelled her here. There was nothing to confirm or deny whether she was coming to term. She grabbed her hand and squeezed it. "It's a lovely day to stay indoors."
By the time Dinadan came to visit, nothing had happened but Medraut's paranoia would not let her draw away. Dinadan gave his sister a judgmental glance but after kissing his wife on her brow, ordered for her meals to be brought up to her. When a brothy soup was brought before the two of them, Fhina was more concerned for Medraut's well-being, making her swallow a couple mouthfuls before she would stomach her own.
Once it started, it was still more hours before they had much progress. Medraut had not acted as a midwife before. She had been called upon to witness many at her mother's home but her feelings had been distanced. Now, she was responsible. The sheets were nearly as damp as Fhina's face. She did not want to risk moving her so they had placed more towels and sheets under her buttocks to keep her out of the dampness. The top sheet, terribly wrinkled as Fhina continuously gripped on it so tightly her nails still dug into her hand, was damp from the sweat of her body, gathered over her midsection so that her legs were uncovered. Her red hair was a darker auburn in its dampness, plastered to her face.
On many occasions, a maid would step forward to wipe her brow when she wasn't screaming. Fhina was never an angry person but many of them still acted as though they were afraid she might bite their hand if they put it near her when she did scream. Medraut was of a different concern. Blood should be darkening her face but it was pale and her hands were cold. Even though she knew their medicine would do nothing, she still found herself wishing for a doctor to be present. At the very least, it would give someone else the job of worrying about that. Even if the doctors did spend more time debating what they were going to do than actually mixing and preparing poultices and potions. At this exact minute, she would rather Fhina try to bite someone. At least it would be a display of vigor.
However, before the sun went down, Medraut found herself in a surprising situation. Fhina held her small son against her chest, both cleaned, bathed with water seeped with herbs. The baby was wrapped tightly with linen, unable to move his limbs, to keep him warm. Dinadan pressed for entrance and Medraut excused herself, equally exhausted but happy.
Her sleep was not smooth, easily interrupted by even the noise the bed made as she shifted from side to side. It was no surprise, then, when the scream that sounded on the air shocked her from her sleep. It was not so loud to be clearly audible but she sensed it and she sensed that the Fae lurking about sensed it, heard it. Like the previous day she took to her feet and tore across the villa. The maid was still in shock when Medraut arrived. She was the wet-nursed that had been selected for Fhina. She was younger than wet-nurses typically chosen so the hysteria was not ill-suited. But when Medraut surveyed the scene, she did not think many capable of containing themselves. Childbirth was the most dangerous occupation a woman had in her lifetime. But Fhina had reassured Medraut that her bleeding had stopped and she had seemed healthier than Medraut expected after the birth, more than just alive. Now she witnessed the error in her acceptance.
From the bed across the room to the fire was a path of blood, smeared from dragging clothing and sheets. It led to the crib Fhina had demanded left in her room by the fire and then back to the bed. The bed sheets were turning brown, blood already drying. Fhina lay half on her side, half on her belly, the baby between her chest and the bed. Her hair was frizzed and curling from the humidity of its moisture and the heat of the room, her eyes were almost frantic. She had the look of a crazed woman. Medraut brought herself over to the bed and forced Fhina's eyes to close, giving her peace. She wondered if the babe had passed before Fhina had. The wet nurse had not heard him cry, had no indication anything was wrong before she came to provide the infant with a meal.
Medraut refused every suggestion to wake Dinadan after he did not appear. She had the other servants awoken to help prepare her for burial. She did her best to help clean Fhina up, stripping the sheets, and when a servant brought her a bowl of warmed water, wiped off what blood she could with a damp towel. She nearly lost the calm that had settled over her when he did awake, his emotions seeming capable of taking the home off its foundations. He remained locked in his quarters and refused admittance. It left Fhina's burial up to Medraut.
Under Arthur's guidance, the recommendation would be for a good Catholic burial with rites and prayers. Dinadan, coming from Medraut's parents, was of a much more pagan nature. He did not find the need to employ a priest when he had so many other expenses. His Christian servants said their prayers in private quarters. The village nearby didn't even have a chapel. Fhina was of mixed decent, with Roman Catholic blood. However, she had never once, while alive, pushed for a more Christian living. It helped Medraut's decision.
With the help of the male servants, she had Fhina and the baby, too young to be baptized, placed on a litter and carried outside. She took her to a quiet hill and had them place her there. They headed back to the castle-like villa to retrieve shovels to bury her. Medraut was sad to think that they would not find them. In allowing the Fae in, it was one of the many things she had to remove. Many of the earthen Fae, even the Fae of air who had gathered in Fhina's room, quickly assembled. Ursula stood close to Medraut as they did and audibly gasped. Many of the maids around them did not see.
The Fae did not have the same selfish morals as humans. They did not feel compelled to do things because they owed it, because it was required. They did not do things to "pay another back" for their actions or deeds. Their whims were driven by their emotions. So when they were moved by the site of her, it had nothing to do with what she had done in her life, what she might represent, or what she might have done for them. It was because, in the situation, it was what they desired, what they felt like. From the earth around her, pushing around the late winter snow, more earth snaked up and covered her in plants and vines, in dirt and earth, until a large burial mound formed over top of her and the baby's bodies, fully fitted with grass more lush than the earth around it. Small white flower took to blooming.
Perhaps it was in tribute to what they hoped for the future by attributing this event to the past. It was a time before, before iron, when tumuli1 were a popular trend. It was a time when Fae were plentiful, when the peoples of earth could see and hear them in the multitudes. When they were respected as gods. Or perhaps it was for no reason at all. Regardless, Medraut was deeply moved by the sight. Many of the maids could not comprehend and a few blessed themselves in hopes to keep demons away. Others were awed and moved like Medraut, even if they could not see the cause like she could. But they all willingly followed her back to the castle where Dinadan was locked away in mourning.
Dinadan could not be coerced to take food or drink. He could not be coerced to open his door. He, even, on several occasions, demanded with colorful insults that Medraut vacate the premises. It took resolve on Fhina's behalf to keep her will intact at the suggestion this was her fault. Did he not remember her warning all those nights ago? She tried to bring peace to herself by sitting by the mound for Fhina. She pulled her cloak tightly over her shoulders and tried to bring herself to meditation, not to tears. Fhina was perhaps the only person she could call a friend, with the exception of her maid. It seemed events would never stop their occurrence, however. She felt a shiver, a shadow covering the sun that would have warmed her. She looked up and her stomach did a flip. She was sure all the color drained from her body. 'Though his body was in shadow, the falling sun haloed his body in light.
"Medraut?" his voice asked in uncertainty. The tone was almost scared.
Ironically, the person's presence strengthened her resolve. But perhaps it was because she could not bear the conversation he might wish to start. "Good, you are here. Dinadan will not stir. I need your help." She kept her tone even and flat. If she let emotion in, she could not guarantee the results.
Arthur, his own body fighting a flurry of emotion, could only follow behind her, guiding his horse beside him with a hand on its bridle.
1 Tumulus (plural: tumuli) is the name for a barrow or any such mound of earth and stone built over a grave or graves. They typically involved burying the person with valuables and in some cases, their furniture and wives (with men - ironically, the women were typically face-down on top of the man). With the instance in this story, I have used only the minimal mound rather than the typical.
A/N: I promise the next chapter will not be so depressing. It is somewhat exciting to know there are only two chapters left to this drama. I actually had a lot of trouble with this chapter when I realized I set myself up for a birthing scene which is somewhat uncomfortable for both writer and reader. However, childbirth really was dangerous. Double the years forward to the 13th Century and childbirth still had a high enough mortality rate that Priests suggested that women cleanse their souls for death often when they were nearing term should they die in childbirth.
Interesting fact: wet-nurses was a legit occupation for women as early as the Greco-Roman period (and perhaps even earlier). Makes you wonder if it's as old an occupation as the famous female career, prostitution.