Rheda, widow of Tamar, did not die a beautiful death.
When the contractions started her baby had not turned. Udela righted that soon enough, but then came the blood – so much of it, spewing from between Rheda's thighs and running in warm rivulets over her flesh to soak the earthen floor.
“Scitte.” The midwife turned to her assistant. “Ebba, hot rags, water and salt. Now.”
“Tamar?” whispered Rheda.
“Hush, child.” Udela shuffled forwards and braced the girl's legs against her own body. “Not long to go. You hold on, there’s a good girl.” And so on, soothing nonsense that meant nothing, for she knew Rheda’s chances of making it through this birth alive were slim. Too much blood had been lost, and more would follow when the baby arrived. Keeping up her chatter, she slipped her arm inside the girl and felt for the infant’s head.
“How does it go?” asked Ebba, heaving the kettle onto the fire.
Udela shook her head, her face creased in concentration – then touched what she had been seeking and smiled. She withdrew her arm and took the girl’s hand. “Rheda?”
Rheda’s eyes flickered open.
“Rheda, I can feel your child. It is almost here, but you must help it.”
“I can’t,” she whispered.
“Try, Rheda. Push.”
So she groaned and struggled, and little by little the child moved – and then with a final shriek from Rheda, a tiny girl rushed out into the midwife’s waiting hands. Deftly she cleared the child’s mouth of mucus and heard it utter its first rasping breath – as always, a sound that filled her with warm relief – then tied and cut the umbilical cord.
“Your daughter, Rheda,” she said, holding the child to the young woman’s face – but Rheda was too far gone to see or care. Blood and slime still poured from within her, and her face was white and damp.
“It hurts,” she murmured. “It hurts, make it stop.” Then – “Tamar!” And her face contorted into a gruesome rictus and her body spasmed, and then she was still.
Trigger warnings for scenes depicting difficult childbirth and domestic violence.
Chapter end notes:
Scitte - Old English, 'shit.' Tolkien used Old English to represent Rohirric in his works, though I'm not sure he'd be down with the expletives...