Rain beat against the tiny hut in icy sheets, the wind howled and whistled through gaps in the wooden structure. A single candle lit the room, casting long, flickering shadows over the sparse furnishings. Drying herbs hung from the beams holding the straw and thatch roof in place, filling the air with pungent, warring aromas.
Two women occupied the single cot room, a maid of fifteen winters, terrified, drenched in sweat, her golden hair plastered to her face despite the frigid temperature. She heaved air in and out of her lungs, panting like a wounded animal between contractions. Tears dripped from her eyes and ran in hot trails to her hairline. The older woman, Meg, slid her hand around the babe's head and turned it face down.
Meg glanced up and met wide, terrified eyes. "Don't push yet, lass."
Pain spiraled though Caoimhe's slight frame, she dug her heels into the feather mat, instinctively pushing herself upward, seeking an escape from the waves of pain rushing through her without let up. She bit a thick strap of leather so hard her teeth met.
Meg continued to guide the infant. "Here it comes."
A searing pain ripped a scream out of her throat. Caoimhe's stomach hardened, then a pressure Caoimhe could not control overtook her. She bore down, the babe slid out and into Meg's arms.
A smile split Meg's wrinkled face. "'Tis a girl!"
A thin cry competed with the howling wind as Meg wrapped the infant in a course blanket, then handed her to Caoimhe.
Caoimhe looked at the small, scrunched up face in wonder. "How can I love her so much, Meg, when she was planted in my belly by force?"
Meg shook her head, a soft smile curved her thin lips. "'Tis the way of a mother, lass," she answered. "What will ye call her?"
"Sorsha." Caoimhe said without hesitation. "I'll call her Sorsha, it means brightness, light."
Meg nodded her approval. "Put her to yer breast, child, the suckling will help ye deliver the afterbirth."
Caoimhe swallowed. "There's more?"
Meg chuckled. "The next part is easy, lass, don't ye worry."
Caoimhe bared her breast and after a few awkward tries, Sorsha was nursing. Love and wonder filled Caoimhe. Had this tiny person come from her body?
How was it possible?
Caoimhe gasped in pain, her stomach contracting again. "Meg, ye said this part was to be easy?" She sucked air into her lungs and dug her fingers into the cloth covering her daughter. "Meg!"
Meg pushed Caoimhe's knees apart, then her brows drew in even as her eyes widened.
Panic, hot and alive, seized Caoimhe. "What is it?" She gasped. "What's happening?"
Meg flicked a glance to her. "It seems there is another babe," she said. "Ye can do this lass, one more time and I promise it will be over."
Somehow, despite her exhaustion and fear, Caoimhe pushed the second infant out of her body without disturbing the daughter still suckling at her breast.
Meg held the squirming golden haired little girl up for Caoimhe to see, then rummaged for another blanket to swaddle her in. "Ye have two bonny daughters, lass," she said placing the second babe in Caoimhe's free arm.
Meg helped Caoimhe bare her other breast and within moments the babe was greedily nursing.
"I don't ken what to call her." Caoimhe confided.
Meg wiped her hands on her apron. "There will be plenty of time to name her, lass. Rest now, ye are going to have yer work cut out for ye keeping up with yer chores and two daughters."
Caoimhe smiled as her eyes drifted shut. She would worry about the truth of Meg's words tomorrow. For now, she needed to sleep.
"They are so much alike," she whispered. "I can't believe there are two. I think I'll call this one Ceana."
Meg was silent for a moment. "Fair one. I think that is a lovely name, lass. Ye picked well, for both yer wee daughters."
Meg shuffled around the room as Caoimhe allowed her throbbing body to relax.
The door to the hut flew open, Caoimhe jerked awake and she struggled to orientate her thoughts. Wind extinguished the candle and rain pelted into the hut like icy darts.
The crash of thunder followed by the flash of lighting illuminated Gormal, the laird's wife of one winter, heavy with child. She stood drenched from head to toe in the threshold, with two of her personal guards flanking her.
Meg rushed to shut the door against the storm. "Is it yer time, My Lady?"
Terror clutched its icy fingers around Caoimhe's throat. Gormal hated her. She had hated her since the first moment she had set eyes on Caoimhe. Or, rather, Caoimhe thought through her rising panic, the first time she had noticed her new husband setting his eyes on her.
"Light the candle!" Gormal demanded.
Meg obeyed without comment. When the soft glow once again filled the room, Gormal was standing at Caoimhe's side, the hate in her eyes as strong as a physical blow.
"Two?" she sneered. "Two whelps. Are they boys or girls?"
Caoimhe swallowed, her hold on her babies tightened and they whimpered in protest. "They are girls."
Gormal's lips pulled into a sneer even as she rubbed her belly. "Serves ye right," she hissed. "If ye think ye and those babies will be allowed to stay within these walls, then yer mistaken. I'll not have ye flaunting yer self in front of my husband!"
Caoimhe gaped at her and Meg gasped from where she stood behind Gormal, wringing her hands in her apron.
Gormal narrowed her eyes and leaned in so close to Caoimhe her breath warmed her cheeks. "Did ye think I did not ken ye threw yer self at my husband at every opportunity? Did ye think I did not ken that ye made him plant his seed in ye?" She leaned in lower, her face almost touching Caoimhe's. "Did ye really think ye and yer whelp could stay here if it weren't a son?"
Tears blurred Caoimhe's vision. "But, my lady, it was not like that." She sniffed, struggled to put her thoughts together, to somehow convince Gormal of her innocence. "I -- I did not want him to--"
Gormal raised her hand and Caoimhe shrank back, but there was no way to avoid the slap. Her head snapped back and hit the wall behind her. Light exploded behind her lids and her stomach churned with shock, fear and confusion.
Gormal's face contorted with rage. "Get out!"
Meg rushed over. "My lady, please, she just gave birth!" she pleaded. "The lass has nowhere to go, she is an orphan herself."
Gormal turned her venomous glare on Meg, and the elderly woman stumbled back a step.
Gormal took a menacing step toward Meg. "She and the infants are banned from this clan. They leave these gates tonight with only the clothes on their backs." She narrowed her gaze. "Do ye wish to go with them?"
Caoimbe's whole body trembled. Her friend, the only mother figure she had ever had, dropped her gaze and shook her head.
Gormal ripped the thin blanket off of Caoimhe. "Get out."
The two large guards stood silent at the door, their arms folded across their chests and their eyes vacant of emotion.
Caoimhe hugged her daughters closer to her. "Please," she pleaded, struggling to shift her legs off the cot. Her bare feet touching the cold rushes sent a violent shiver though her. "Please, my lady, do not ban the babies." Liquids gushed from her body, soaking her thread-bear dress. The room spun but still she kept her hold on the babies. "Ye can't send them out to die."
Gormal rubbed at her lower back. "That's where yer wrong," she said, her voice strained. "I most certainly can."
Meg watched Gormal closely. "My lady, is it yer time?"
Gormal sucked in a breath and clutched her stomach. "Aye," she said at last. "I think it is."
She composed herself then turned back to Caoimhe. "Why are ye still here?"
The storm raged outside the hut. Desperate, she pleaded for her babies. "Yer child will need a maid when it gets bigger. Let Meg raise my daughters, she can train them how to serve. They can serve yer child, my lady. They, they can serve ye."
Another pain caught Gormal in its grip and she clutched her stomach. Meg hovered, wringing her hands in her apron. "My lady, ye should lie down."
Caoimhe stood, her body hurt and throbbed as she stumbled away from the only cot.
Meg pulled the soiled linen and tossed it into a corner, then quickly retrieved a fresh set and remade the bed.
Gormal laid down, her brow filmed with perspiration as her stomach tightened and released.
"Please!" Caoimhe could not stop the flow of tears scalding her cheeks. "Please, my lady, let Meg care for my daughters."
Gormal panted though a contraction and glared at her. "Fine," she shouted. "Leave them. They will spend their whole lives scrimping and scraping to serve us! Now get out of these gates and never come back!"
Caoimhe's legs almost buckled in relief. Her daughters would not have an easy life, but at least they would have life.
Caoimhe knew once the gates closed behind her, the only thing waiting for her would be a slow death.
There were extra blankets on the floor of the hut, she laid her daughters on top of them with trembling arms, then checked the swaddling confining her daughters. Through her tears she strove to memorize each little face, faces so much like her own with their light hair and blue eyes.
She kissed each infant. "I will always love ye."
With one last longing look at her daughters, she turned and met Meg's eyes. Meg nodded once, Gormal screeched in pain, and Meg went to work.
With nothing but bare feet and the soiled dress on her back, Caoimhe eased open the door so the wind would not extinguish the candle. With the two guards at her heels, she stepped into the bitter cold storm.
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