Season 4, Episode 9
Written by Tof Eklund
Read by Tawn Krakowski
The barren heart of winter descended upon us in raging storms that whistled and howled about the farmhouse, leaving us snowbound. Then the deep freeze set, and the world outside was silent as the grave. The floor was cold, the stone walls colder, and invisible tongues, murderously chill, lapped at anyone foolish enough to stray near a door or windowsill.
We all bundled up and sat clustered around the hearth for warmth. We only had two chairs, one of which was generally claimed by Ma Niall, the other occupied near-continually by Kaye, who had to be helped into and back out of it. I sat on the cold stone floor next to Kaye and often found myself gazing at my burns, now healed to thin pale lines. The darker tone of the scars on my skin attested to the depth of my injuries.
I never got used to Thrycaen winters, even in the palace, where there was no shortage of roaring fires, warm clothing, and hot food, not to mention room to walk around. In this small, barely heated space, I felt the press of winter all about me, and it was almost as oppressive as the ruddy fire and choking smoke that had almost claimed me in the Wyrding. Death by burning is far more painful than freezing, but the latter seems so much more absolute to me.
Fire lives, it consumes, lights, and heats. I can think of nothing so desolate as absolute cold. If poor Geoff was right and death awaits everything, it must surely be in the form of a final winter.
Penned in as we were, there was little for any of us to do but eat, talk, sleep, and wait. We mainly ate porridge and boiled beans, occasionally brightened with a jar of preserves. We ate lightly to conserve winter supplies originally meant for two. Ma Niall and Kaye conspired to press a little extra food on me.
“Yer eating for two,” she would say, and everyone would nod.
There was truth in her words, and I did not refuse the additional portions. We had a sufficient source of water in the form of snowmelt, but opening the front door to gather it would cause the temperature to plummet in the small farmhouse. The tradeoff between cold and thirst was a constant source of discomfort.
At first we talked about everything from midwifery to the siege, but our cheer grew thin as the winter stretched on. We spent longer and longer in silence, our minds and tongues as thick and slow as the treacle syrup that occasionally sweetened our porridge.
With little pleasure in food or conversation, we sought what comfort we could find in bed on those long nights. This only contributed to the awkwardness of our days, as we all pretended that our meager attempts at privacy were sufficient. Carrig and Lilika were indeed loud. Kaye and I tried to be discreet, but our efforts were clearly insufficient, as I often heard shifting noises, and occasionally muffled grunts coming from Lily’s bedroll during or just after my tussles with Kaye.
The monotony was broken up a bit when Lily came upon a small cache of books tucked behind a sack of grain.
“Ma!” she called as she brought out three yellowing volumes. They were cheaply printed, but even the cheapest books were beyond the means of most country folk. “Where did you get these?”
‘”From a traveling peddler who needed a broken finger tended to,” she replied without so much as a glance up at the haul. “I think ‘e was as happy to get rid of them as he was to get his bones set.”
I was as surprised as I was pleased to find reading material, and immediately dug into a book about healing plants, trying not to break the brittle pages and ignoring Ma Niall’s warning that it was, “Two licks of a switch worse’n useless.”
She was right, and I soon put the book down out of sheer frustration. Kaye was doing better with a text on animal husbandry. When I asked how it was, he smirked at me.
“I have fond memories of this book,” he said. “Don’t you remember it?”
I shook my head and he continued.
“This is an abridged version of a book you gave me years ago, when I asked you to teach me about sex.”
“There was next to nothing in the palace library,” I said.
“I read and re-read the sections in here on breeding and birthing,” Kaye said. “Trying to figure it out.”
I would have traded the useless herbology for the third and final book in the cache, a mildly ribald collection of ballads, but Lily had an iron grip on that one.
“You have company a’night,” she said when she saw me eyeing her book. “If I don’t get something to occupy my thoughts other’n the sound of other folks rutting, I am going to lose my head.”
Embarrassed, I retreated.
The days and nights blurred, such that I can scarcely recall them now. My belly continued to swell as my due date approached. I felt as compressed and cramped in my own body as I did in the farmhouse. Ma Niall examined me and declared that the baby was not in the right position.
“It’s not a thing to worry over, sweetmeats,” she said, “we’ve still got more’n a moon before the baby comes. Just lean forward when you can, lay on your left side, and if things don’t sort themselves in a fortnight, I’ll shift the little one myself.”
Then the deep chill broke. The temperature rose to the merely freezing, and Lily and Carrig went to work clearing the snow and ice away from the doors. Carrig was pulling a heavy roller along the main path away from the farm and I was helping Lily salt the compressed snow left behind when we met a man coming to request Ma Niall’s aid for his sick daughter.
Lilika asked him a rather exhaustive series of questions before gathering a few things and departing with him. She came back that afternoon with a basket full of reddish carrot-like tubers that she called “brassies,” a lump of butter, and three eggs.
Boiled brassies have a carrot-like texture just with more bite and a lingering bitter aftertaste, but even that was a welcome change from beans and porridge. The eggs, fried in the butter, were a delight.
In the following days, requests poured in for Ma Niall’s help with births both animal and human, as well as with ailments from sniffles and sprains to fever, frostbite, and jaundice. Some she went off to attend to, others she sent back with herbs and instructions, and some with just a caution to find her if things got worse. With these requests came food: grains, various roots and tubers, the occasional bit of honey or preserves, more eggs and occasionally dairy. A few extra blankets arrived after a birth and, once people found out that Ma Niall had ill-provisioned guests, some better fitting if threadbare clothing also made its way to the farmhouse.
I didn’t venture far, as it was still bitterly cold and my bulging belly made everything more difficult. Kaye was still effectively housebound, as going outside meant hanging onto Carrig’s back or being pulled on a sled. Everyone else found excuses to be out as much as they could tolerate, Carrig often accompanying Lilika on her calls, and Lily shuffling in and out, complaining the whole time about the state the farm was in. The preternaturally cold-tolerant nettles in the north field particularly bothered her.
Ma Niall decided that I needed that manual adjustment, and when she dug her bony hands into my skin, pressing on my womb to shift the baby’s position, I cried out in pain. Slowly she shifted her grip and position, and through the sharp pressure, I felt motion inside my belly. After what seemed like hours, Ma Niall stopped and put her ear to my belly.
“Baby’s doing fine,” she said, “and your bruises will heal. In a couple of days, I want to check the new position and see if I need to do a bit more.
The next day she was called away to tend to a sickly goat at a farm several hours away. She took Carrig with her and let us know not to expect them back until the morrow or the day after. That evening, I went into labor.
© 2014 Copyright Tof Eklund
Presented by BigWorldNetwork.com