Brynhild coaxed Aurelia through the corridor slowly. Every few steps Aurelia winched and cried out in pain. "Momma?" Aurelia asked desperately. One hand was curled underneath her protruding belly where the pain stabbed at her, and the other was clutching tightly to Brynhild's hand. "What is this?"
"We need to lay you down now."
"But momma…?" Another contraction rolled through her body and Aurelia fell against the wall, no longer able to stay steady on her feet. She gritted her teeth and hissed, "it feels like he's between my legs." She cried out, shaking her head when her mother tried to coax her, "I can't move."
"That's a good sign," her mother reasoned, helping Aurelia stand upright again. There was a pool of clear liquid marking a trail all the way back to the great hall where they had come. "Another few steps and we'll be there…"
The lower parts of the castle were filled with small rooms. Many at the back had once been servant quarters. Brynhild led Aurelia to the closest one, and bolted the door shut once they entered, but Aurelia was in too much pain to notice. "Here now," Brynhild said, leading Aurelia to the small bed where a single sheet covered an otherwise dirty mattress.
"What do I do momma?" The fear in her daughter's voice filled the room.
"We'll do what we have to do," Brynhild said matter-of-factly, "Now lie back, save your strength for the next set of pains."
Brynhild turned away from Aurelia and concentrated on starting a fire in the dry hearth. From behind her she could hear Aurelia scoot across the bed and lay back. Earlier Brynhild had placed a cauldron of clean water and a basket of blankets and long strips of torn cloth in the room. Once the fire was started she positioned the small cauldron near the center and took the previously torn strips of cloth from the basket.
Turning back to Aurelia she could see her daughter was having another contraction. She bent her back forward, and her eyes squinted shut. "Breathe," Brynhild instructed, seeing that Aurelia was holding her breath, "breathe through the pain."
"I can't," Aurelia pleaded, her teeth folded over her lips and bit down hard.
"You must," Brynhild brushed the damp hair away from Aurelia's face, "it's what women have done for eons - since the beginning." Brynhild stood, hovering over her daughter until the pain subsided. "This is what happens when a woman is foolish with a boy. This pain is curse. It will stay on you like a mark forever. You'll never forget it." Brynhild took one of the strips of cloth and tied it with a strong knot onto Aurelia's wrist. "When you were born your father was so proud," she tied the opposite end to the bed post, making Aurelia's arm tilt back at an awkward angle. "So happy," she mused, "now lie back."
"What are you doing?" Aurelia asked but she did as her mother told her.
"It's better this way," Brynhild told her as she tied and knotted Aurelia's other arm back to the other bedpost in a similar fashion. Aurelia didn't argue.
Brynhild tied both of Aurelia's feet to opposite sides of the lower bedposts, leaving Aurelia splayed across the bed.
"Momma," Aurelia said warily, "the pains coming back."
"I know," Brynhild hitched Aurelia's skirt up; the chemise was damp from the birthing fluid, "breathe slow and deeply."
Aurelia's hands curled into tight fists against the rope, she instinctively wanted to clutch something when the pain cut her in two but with her restrains she couldn't. Brynhild brought Aurelia's skirts high enough to expose the full rind of her belly. She could feel the taunt surface, and see the think veins pulsating just underneath the skin.
"Momma," Aurelia groaned, throwing her head back in desperation, the pain felt like death.
Brynhild parted Aurelia's legs and moved her fingers inside her daughter, measuring how far the labor was. "Not even half way there," Brynhild told her daughter, "it will be a while yet."
"What?" Another pain seized her, causing her to pull at the restrains even harder this time.
"It could be hours yet." Brynhild stepped away from the bed, turning her back on her daughter, and going back to tend to the fire. She pulled a stick up from the bottom of the basket and set it aside for Aurelia to bite down on later when the pains intensified. There was a softer small blanket as well, and taking it up, Brynhild ran her hand along the soft material. It was white and decorated with the small emblems of King Frederick's court. An embroidered wolf on each corner with the head of a crow. The old Queen Freja had wrapped her infant son in this blanket and Brynhild remembered when Aurelia herself had been swaddled in it so many years ago.
"Momma," Aurelia panted from the bed, crying out desperately, "he's coming."
"No," Byrnhild told her, "not yet."
"Momma," Aurelia breathed through the pain as it intensified, "please hold my hand."
Brynhild put the blanket down near the stick and with another log she stoked the fire. She didn't go to her daughter when she cried out, but the muscles in her jaw clenched tightly. Aurelia needed to understand what she had done, and this was the only way.
"Momma," Aurelia breathed in desperation a few minutes later when the pain came back, "please."
In the back of Brynhild's mind she saw Oren's face in the final moments before she killed him. "Please," he had begged, "don't hurt Aurelia."
She looked down at her hands, mud and dirt still smeared on them from burying the boy near the barn. She had covered him with the bloody leaves he had fallen on before covering him up with dirt, obscuring his face. He had died with his eyes open, that same fleeting and desperate look that he had given Brynhild moments before she plunged the blade in was locked onto his face as though even in death he was seeking reassurance.
He looked too much like Aurorette. His bones were delicate and lean like hers and when he spoke it was always with the same foreign elegance and crass stubbornness even though Brynhild had denied him everything for so long.
"Why did you go into the woods today?" Brynhild asked her daughter suddenly.
Aurelia was breathing through another pain and it made speaking difficult, "I wanted—to find—Oren."
"Oren," Brynhild hissed, it was like being denied her own happiness by Aurorette again, "you would love that brat more than your own mother? You would sacrifice everything your father stood for just to be with that boy?"
"Momma—" Aurelia's teeth bit down on her lip, trying to ease her way out of the contraction.
"It wasn't supposed to be like this," Brynhild stammered, she began to mutter inarticulately. "Frederick said he would stay with me, even when she came here. He said he loved me, he would stay with me. Nothing could tear him from my side… until that brat was born." Brynhild turned on her daughter, her eyes wide with panic and hate. "Did you know that I had to cut her open to get the baby out," Brynhild put her face close to Aurelia's to gage her reaction. "Yes," she smiled when Aurelia's mouth opened at her mother revelation. "She suffered for three days before Frederick summoned me, the baby" she went on, "wasn't facing the right way, and he wouldn't be turned. I told Frederick I wanted no part of it. She was foreign; let her foreign maids help her through it. Let her die if need be. But he came to me, deep in the night with his head lowered, 'Bryn' he had said, 'please save her.' What could I do? I wanted to please him. I wanted to make him happy." Brynhild took a slow deep breath. Another surge of pain was ripping through Aurelia and she continued, more calculatingly. "When I went to her she had nearly died from blood loss alone. She didn't even have the strength to pant or groan as the pain gripped her. I asked her 'do you want to die like this?' and she rolled her head back on the pillow, even in her weak state she was desperate. I pulled the knife from my bag, and Frederick eyed me fearfully and desperately before turning his attention back to her. He held her hand, and he stroked her face. He whispered things that I couldn't hear."
Aurelia screamed out as the final intense waves of pain struck her.
"And then I cut her open," Brynhild continued, more to herself than to Aurelia now. "It was along the lower abdomen. A small cut, and then you tear the skin away, like you would peel the skin back from an orange. You can see the babe curled up inside, sleeping, almost dead. His skin was blue, I remember that, and at first I was sure he was dead. I could hear her sobbing from the other side of the bed; hear his prayer spoken in a muffled whisper against her cheek. I pulled the boy out of her. I knew it was a boy right away. I cleared the mucus from his mouth, rubbed him hard with my fingers. I even slapped him. He didn't cry. For the longest time there was only silence, but then finally a tiny broken sob escaped through his lips and his arm curled up. 'He's alive,' I told them, although no one seemed to understand. She should have died after that. When I looked down at her I imagined she would be gone. Her face had already turned white. She didn't even have the strength to lift her arms. Frederick held the baby to her. Let her look into the little boys face. I think she was determined to live in that moment, and she did."
Aurelia moaned from the pain again, her hands pulling harder on her restraints.
Brynhild wandered back to the fireplace and grabbed the stick she had earlier set aside. "Here," she scolded her daughter, "bite down on this when you feel the pain, and stop screaming so, I've never known a girl to be so loud while giving birth."
Brynhild pushed her fingers inside Aurelia to measure how far dilated she was. "Not yet," she told Aurelia's hopefully pleading eyes. "Still a ways yet to go." Brynhild went back to the fire, stocking the logs further until the flames licked and lapped higher.
When the next wave of pains hit Aurelia she was no longer able to call out due to the stick in her mouth but she moaned and sobbed all the same. Brynhild stopped listening to her. She wrapped her arms around herself and rocked back and forth on her heels.
After a few more pains Aurelia pushed the stick out of her mouth with her tongue. "Momma," she pleaded, her sobs filling the room, "It hurts. I can't—do this—anymore."
"This is what happens," Brynhild muttered into the fire. "This is what comes of letting that savage touch you."
"Ahh" Aurelia screamed. The pains were coming closer together, one right after the next. "Ahh," Aurelia took a deep breath and then another started up again.
Brynhild went to her daughter, who was all but spent, and panting on the bed.
"You don't love him," Brynhild accused, "you love the pleasure his body gave to yours. Pleasure that left you with this," she moved her hands through the air, her fists hovering over Aurelia's stomach. "And he left you alone. You're a whore, just like her."
"No!" Aurelia protested. "He'll come back for me."
"He's never coming back."
Another pain seized her and she moaned again in agony. "When will this stop," Aurelia muttered, "when will it end?"
Brynhild brought her hand down to her daughter again, measuring the opening between her legs. From touch Brynhild could tell that Aurelia's body was ready to start pushing but she stilled herself. Another tangled contraction filled Aurelia's body. Her voice dry and haunted. Brynhild listened to her cry as the pain moved through her. She watched Aurelia fall into relaxation when the pain dissipated and then when it flooded back into her quickly she listened to the next strangled cry.
"Oren?" Aurelia yelled desperately.
"He won't come for you."
"Oren?" She cried out more vehemently, but only the howling wind answered her. Its wail was as sharp and piercing as hers had been.
"It's time," Brynhild finally muttered reluctantly. She didn't want to her that boys name again. Not on her lips or her daughters or anyone. Never again, she told herself. "When I say so I want you to bear down and push, do you understand?"
Aurelia shook her head, she didn't understand.
Brynhild sighed, exasperated, "Use your muscles here," she said palming Aurelia's lower abdomen, "bare down and push. You have to push the baby out."
Aurelia prepared herself, but before her mother gave her any instruction another deep surging pain gripped her and she writhed against her restraints. "I want Oren," she sobbed.
"Alright push," Brynhild commanded. Using her restraints as leverage Aurelia pushed herself up into as close as a sitting position as she could muster. Her knees began to shake and clenching her stomach she groaned through a long push. "Wait," Brynhild instructed her, but it was too hard and Aurelia began to push again. "I said wait," Brynhild screeched and before Aurelia knew what was happening her mother's hand slapped across her cheek. Aurelia was stunned. "Do as I say. When I say stop you stop." Brynhild's eyes were frenzied and wild. "Alright," she finally said, "push again." Another long painful moan followed Aurelia's actions. She could feel herself tearing wide open, but she couldn't see anything over the fullness of her belly.
"The head is out," Brynhild told her daughter, "the shoulders will be worse."
"John," Aurelia stammered, "his name is John…"
"Push," Brynhild commanded.
The pain this time was agony. So fierce and unrelenting that Aurelia's eyes curled back in their sockets and her head began to drop back. She felt dizzy and lightheaded. Brynhild's hand grasping the collar of her dress brought Aurelia back. "Finish this! Finish what you've started."
Aurelia gathered her remaining strength and with a final cry she felt the baby slide out from underneath her. Hearing the desperate cry of the infant Aurelia released her hold from her restraints and fell back against the bed exhausted.
"John," Aurelia cooed, she was desperate to see him, desperate to hold him.
"It's not a boy," Brynhild sighed, "it's a girl."
"Momma," Aurelia's smile was wide, "let me hold her."
Brynhild's eyes locked onto her daughters for the briefest of moments before she let them go, turning her gaze back to the infant that she had swaddled in the old royal blanket and was now holding in her arms.
Unexplainable fear gripped Aurelia and when she fought against her restraints it was for an entirely different kind of pain. "Momma," she reasoned, "please."
Brynhild met her daughters gaze again, "I'll call her Aurora. It means dawn. She will be clean where you have been sullied."
"Momma," Aurelia cried, fighting harder at her tied hands but unable to free herself. "Momma please, let me hold the baby. I'm sorry for what I did, please forgive me. You were right, you were always right."
Brynhild didn't take her eyes away from the baby, who now slept peacefully in her arms. "Rest now," she said, but Aurelia knew that she was talking to her and not the child. "Rest— and I'll deal with you later."