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Honor The Midwife (October 2021)
By Jennifer R. Povey
There was something about the town of Roka that was shadowed. People here did not wear bright colors and sparkling jewelry, but rather chose more somber hues. Roka's women, in particular, seemed to carry themselves like women haunted, heads bowed and eyes down. Never did they meet anyone's gaze.
The gates of Roka were high and solid, for the town stood close to the northern border and raiding was not uncommon. True, most of such raiding was cattle rustling, to the point where quite a few of the border cows knew the way, having been traded back and forth so many times.
Those gates currently stood open, but watched, solid men in armor on either side. They paid little attention to the ragged traveler who made her way through them. An old woman leading a small mule, a scruffy creature of vaguely brown coloring. On its back was only her baggage. Perhaps she walked rather than riding because it had already decided not to tolerate her presence and dumped her in the dust once too often. Certainly, she seemed filthy enough to have thus fallen.
Thus, she passed within the town like a breeze, although later, her coming would indeed be remarked upon. For now, she led the mule, who kept flicking his ears in disgust, down the street. Anyone close enough to hear her, though, would have come to the quick conclusion that the woman was completely insane.
She was, in fact, talking to her mule. Now this, in and of itself, would have been unimportant. Many people spoke nonsense to their animals ... of course, mules might well be smart enough to understand.
"I know the place stinks, Murk, but we'll be out of here soon enough."
An ear flick.
"I know, I know! Don't worry, it will be over soon, and we can both go back to doing what we do." As if the mule was a temporary thing, and that would have attracted some attention. Shapeshifters were not well tolerated in the north, or even this close to the border.
The inn she approached fit her station ... a poor place, but she found a copper for the stable boy. "Watch out, he kicks," she informed the lad.
The mule gave her a disgusted look, as if she had just ruined all of his fun. Winking at him, she stepped inside the common room.
It did smell, and a noticeable fact was that she was the only female present. That alerted her instinctively, as did the fact that nobody had yet called her 'Mother'. Of course, in her current dress and state, that might just be that they thought she was a tramp.
The stable boy had given her an odd look, too. Now, the barkeep gave her an odder one.
"Where is your protector?" he asked her, reaching a glass down and wiping it clean. The nervous habit of barkeeps everywhere.
"Protector?" she asked, raising and sharpening her voice. Her sense of something wrong increasing. But then, she knew that, or she would not have come here.
"I'm going to have to call the watch if you don't have one."
"What crime have I committed?"
His answer was almost gentle, "You are a woman."
"They should have stopped you at the gate and brought you here," the man said.
"I have committed no crime."
"Vagrancy and entering the town of Roka without a male protector. That is enough to hold you until a place can be found for you."
She started to rise from her seat. "Now, wait a minute young man!" Her tone was that of the scolding mother.
"You are in Roka now, you will abide by our laws. At your age, of course, you would not make a suitable wife, however ..."
"You do not know who you speak to! My name is Corla."
"That means nothing."
"I am one of the most highly skilled midwives in Sokora," she informed him. "I came here in the hope of offering my services to your women."
"You are a midwife?"
"And a healer." Her wrinkled face wrinkled into something akin to a smile. "While you hold me here I could be helping people."
"Excuse me a moment." His words were polite, his tone was not. He stepped outside, she heard the door close and lock.
Oh, this was worse than she had thought. Clearly, something had to be done here.
When he returned, "You are clearly a witch."
She laughed. "No. I am a physician."
"The two are the same thing."
And that explained it. That explained why there were so many deaths in Roka that should not have occurred. "So, you do not accept the healing arts?"
"They interfere with the will of the gods."
She laughed in his face.
"As for you? Fortunately we caught you before you actually practiced witchcraft. The penalty for entering Roka with intent to practice such is only the confiscation of one's property and twelve lashes."
"Which you think I would survive at my age?"
"Your age does not enter into it. Your guilt is obvious. Guards!"
They came in and bore her away, with no gentleness. No, this was not going how it should. She could not help anyone from a jail cell. Murk, no doubt, was trapped in a locked stall somewhere. Or already in the hands of somebody who believed the only way to train a mule was to beat the attitude out of it. They tried that with Murk, and he would kill them. Literally.
Well, that was their problem, not hers. Her problem was making contact with somebody, anybody, who knew what was really going on in Roka. She was working under some pretty heavy limitations. She could not, for example, simply turn into smoke and walk through the walls.
Well, she could, but that would be a last resort. She would save really freaking these people out for the right time and the right moment. For when it would do the most good.
They had put her in a cell, lit only by torchlight through the grilled hole in the door. There was no furniture, just a pallet of straw. Nothing that a prisoner could make use of.
She did not even hear the squeaking of rats which would, at least, have been company. Corla frowned. Well, they would, she hoped, feed her sooner or later. Then, they might make the mistake she was counting on. She would hate to have to move on insufficient intelligence. She needed to know certain things first, and for that, she needed to talk to Roka's women. However, they seemed determined to prevent her from doing that. She sent a thought to Murk, telling him firmly to stay put.
All she got back was an image of him kicking somebody. Well, she would make this up to him later.
Then, the door opened, and her dreams were answered. The girl who stepped in was about fifteen, plainly dressed, and furtive in her manner. She had brought food.
Not good food, but not maggot-ridden hardtack either. Bread, cheese, water. "Ah, so they don't intend to starve me."
The girl remained silent.
"Some cat stolen your tongue, eh?"
"I'm not allowed to talk to you," the girl blurted.
"Ah yes, I'm a bad influence. Well, what if I didn't talk back, eh? Perhaps you can instruct me on how I should behave?"
It was an opportunity and she planned to take it, her face forming a genuine smile for the girl. She looked terrified.
"I think it's too late for that. They already know you're a witch."
"Humor an old woman." Corla smiled again. "Don't worry. I'm not looking for an apprentice." Although the girl had strong hands ... "You're safe from me."
The girl set down the tray, but kept her distance. "I don't know. They'll beat me if they find out."
"Then let them think I put a spell on you. I can't, but they think I can, and if it's too late for me, what difference does it make?"
"They'd burn you instead of flogging you."
"Eh." Corla made it sound as if it did not matter to her, her eyes remained bright.
"You're not afraid of them, are you?"
"You think they hold all of the power. Because they always have, right?" Roka had been a problem for a lot longer than this girl's fifteen summers.
"They're men." A blanket indictment of half of the human race, but something that worried her more. "I should go."
"And what if they no longer had that power? What if you had it? What would you do with it?"
"I don't know." And the girl fled.
An honest answer, at least. She was as cowed as any woman Corla had ever seen, and she had seen a lot. But she was at least honest.
Unfortunately, the conversation had told her very little. She might have to see this through to the end.
She sent another thought to Murk.
They had chosen the middle of the day for her punishment. This was the only chance she had, but she knew she had more than they thought. She knew, with a focused clarity, that what needed to happen would happen.
"That blasted mule of yours landed two hooves on Brik and ran off!"
Corla laughed. "Mules are smart, I'm sure he had a reason."
The guard just scowled at her. "We'll find him. I don't know how you tolerate such a stupid creature."
"Smart." A secret smile, though, crossed her face. Good. Murk was, as usual, holding up his end.
They had her bound, of course, but had not gagged her. Did they not know she was a witch? Or perhaps the guards found her banter amusing.
Any moment ... now.
A boy came rushing through the crowd. "Lady Keria!"
The men turned. "What about her?"
"The child. It comes early. There is a lot of blood ... we do not think she will live."
Corla turned. The man who stood by the gallows ... close to which was the flogging post ... She watched his expression change.
"So, what will you do? Beat me or let me save your wife?" Her lips twitched. Murk was, in his own way, every bit as capable of ensuring that the woman and child would not actually die. But the man did not know that.
"You can save her?"
"I can't be sure until I see her, my lord. But I can certainly try. Which is it to be?" She held, for this moment, the power.
A long pause, a hesitation. If he gave in to her here, publicly, his power would be undermined. It would be the wedge that would end this.
If he did not, then for now, she had failed, but she would be back.
"Take her to the castle," he said, finally.
There was a gasp from the crowd. So, the man might believe the darkness, but there was always hope for a man who loved his wife.
The guards did not, however, untie her.
"This is a delay. If I see any magic, then you will die!" the Lord threatened, falling in next to them.
"No magic. Only skill. Women are, you know, better at these things." She bet the physicians were all men. Always a bad step — letting men in the birthing room.
The walk gave her plenty of time to observe. Few women on the street, and those she saw haunted, shadowed. Even fewer children, but that fit what she knew.
The Lord's Castle was in the center of the town, on the top of a hill, but it was not far, not far at all. In no time at all, they stood at the gates, admitted by uniformed guards.
Even within, there was no brightness of color.
The birthing room appeared to be nothing more than the Lady's own chamber. Keria lay flat on her back on the bed, and the only one with her was a servant. From her face, she did not know what to do.
"Untie me," she demanded, and her voice had taken on a new note, a note of command and certainty.
"Do it," the Lord said.
"Then get out ..." She paused. "No, one of you can stay, I need a witness to make sure I obey the law, do I not?"
Not that they would know whether she did or not, not these dull men with no understanding.
"All of you out," the Lord said. "I will stay."
"Alone with her?" A guard objected.
"She is an old woman ... I think I can handle her." Once they had left. "Can you save her?"
"Hush." Lady Keria's eyes were open, but she did not seem to see the room. There was blood between her legs.
Corla had to move fast. The child was coming now. "Just tell me how early she is."
"A month ... we think."
"Often hard to tell with a first child." The servant had at least known enough to have hot water. She washed her hands before approaching the woman.
Keria's eyes focused. "He's in ... a hurry ... isn't he."
"Let me take a look. Yes, he definitely is." A lot of blood, but that was to be expected. "Ah, I see our problem here. You may not want to watch, my lord. Men sometimes find this a little ... hard."
The child was, of course, breech. Not only that, he was inverted, facing the wrong way. It was too late to turn him ... no, the only way was to get him out as quickly as possible.
There was one other way, but she knew if she tried that here, the woman would die. This way had a chance to save both, and placed the risk on the child ... and the child did not yet have a soul, a true awareness. The midwife made the harsh choice, always.
"Keria, we need you out of this bed." Why did men always think women should give birth lying flat on their backs? She reached to help the woman up.
"Okay ... dang it, I wish we had a birthing stool here." The only person she could ask to help was the husband.
She did not need to ask. He was already moving to support the other side of his wife, but his eyes were skeptical. "Up?"
"The child needs to come out as quickly as possible. This way, his weight will assist the birthing, it will be easier. A squatting position is the best." Always the best. How did people end up so ignorant.
"But this will still take ... a while." And men seldom had the endurance for these things. Keria's face was streaked with sweat, but she was crying out remarkably little.
She was, of course, in the best of hands.
"I have a son." Lord Menor of Roka regarded her. "What payment can I give you?"
"Listen to your women. How many healthy children have been born in Roka this year?"
"It's hard, it's ..."
"Not many. Something is very wrong in Roka, that is why I came here. You need to end this ban on healing. End it, and free your women, or Roka will fade and die."
"If you do not, your son will." The woman who called herself Corla smiled. "I made sure of that."
"What did you do to him?" Almost, he leapt for her throat, but his restraint was remarkable.
"Nothing bad. He has my blessing, that is all, and he will grow to manhood knowing that." It had all worked out ... of course, she would not have come had she not known Lady Keria would have such difficulties.
"Witch!" This time he did grab her.
"No. Oh, and my name is not Corla." It was time to go, and in a moment, she was gone in mist and golden light.
The last thing she saw was Roka's staring face, and the light of recognition in his eyes.
"I have to do everything myself," she grumbled once he could no longer hear her. "I really need to learn to delegate more." And then, Neir, the midwife of the gods, was completely gone from Roka.
Her influence, however, was most certainly not, for Keria's son grew up to be more than just Lord of Roka. That, though, is another story. For another day.
Text copyright © 2021 by the author. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: Born in Nottingham, England, Jennifer R. Povey (Tumblr / Facebook / Twitter) now lives in Northern Virginia, where she writes everything from heroic fantasy to stories for Analog. She has written a number of novels across multiple sub genres. Additionally, she is a writer, editor, and designer of tabletop RPG supplements for a number of companies. Her interests include horseback riding, Doctor Who and attempting to out-weird her various friends and professional colleagues.