Marital Bliss - Part IV
ust keep breathing, Kimberly,” Lady Avery advised as the rat tightened her grip on the bedspread. The stick of petrified wood was once more between her teeth as she did her best to resist the urge to push at the child yearning to be free of her womb. But every time her body had that urge, that desire to contract, she could feel it pulling on something inside of her as well. As if something were trying to drag her very insides out between her legs.
She breathed deeply in, though her breaths were quick. Burris had given over his satchel to the two ladies and they were busy putting the necessary unguents together as a salve. The medicine she was to be given was not something that she was going to be taking with her water. Burris had told them that it would take too long if they did it that way. Instead, they were going to use a magical charm to force it into her arm. They would wound her, but keep the blood flowing in her body, and not out. The wound would be small of course, it had to be for the magic to work. Otherwise they could have just done the same for cutting her open.
But one thing this charm would not do would be eliminate her pain. That she would have to endure herself.
“Baerle, have you boiled the knife?” Jo asked, looking up from her place on the bed.
“Yes,” the opossum lifted the knife, still dripping from where it had been lain in the boiling water a few minutes before. “I’m ready to make the cut. Where did you want it?”
“Right here behind her elbow,” Jo pointed to a small place on Kimberly’s left arm. “We can reach her blood more easily there, and there is less risk of the charm not working. Is it ready?”
Burris nodded, taking a small bracelet with runes drawn across it. The bracelet had been fashioned from wood, and the runes drawn with ash. Or they had been burned into the wood. Kimberly wasn’t sure which. “As soon as she begins to bleed, you need to place this over the wound. I will speak the command words. It will tighten itself. Kimberly, you do not want to have your arm bent when we do this. Do you understand?”
Both Baerle and Kimberly nodded. The opossum looked apologetic and worried, but Kimberly nodded to her as well, her dark eyes firm. This had to be done, or she would die. This had to be done. She had to breath and keep herself from pushing. No, don’t push! Another deep breath. And another. Slow them down, but don’t lose control. That was it. The agony of the contraction passed, the child still within her, still alive.
“Once you are ready with that unguent, you can put it in the receptacle on top.” Burris said, holding out the bracelet at the end of one wing claw. Lady Avery took it from and lifted the small latch at the top. There was a small space for the pasty material to be placed. “It will mix with the flow of the blood automatically. And then very soon Kimberly, you should begin to lose sensations. It will be a gradual thing, but it should also relax your muscles so your body will not go through any more contractions.”
“Will it hurt the baby?” Kimberly asked, suddenly afraid that the medicine might effect him too.
“It should not. He may be a little weak after we remove him from your womb, but the medicine will wear off and he should feel no different from his brothers and sisters.” Burris turned his beak back to Jo and Angela. “Is it ready?”
“Aye. Will this little be enough?” Angela asked as she gestured to the small grey paste that lined the bottom of the mortar.
“Yes. Use the pestle to scrape it up. If you get any on your fingers, wipe them off carefully in hot water. Do not lick your claws clean, or you may not be able to walk home,” the woodpecker warned. In fact, put both the mortar and pestle in the boiling water. Baerle, after they’ve been there for ten minutes, take both out and set them to dry, and then fetch us fresh water.”
“I will put the bracelet on her,” Jo said, holding out the bracelet to Angela. The squirrel ground the pestle into the paste, and lifted a glob up. She rub it against the side of the bracelet, and then pushed it down into the waiting receptacle. The tip of the wooden pestle was just small enough to fit within the opening. Two more times she did this, until she could force no more inside. Carefully, the vixen closed the latch and licked her jowls. “That should do it.”
She climbed off the bed and walked around the foot board carrying the bracelet as if it were a snake about to bite her. When Jo reached the side of the bed next to Baerle, she looked once to Kimberly. “Are you ready?”
Kimberly nodded. “Please, hurry.”
“Okay, Baerle, make the cut. No, a little higher. Yes, that’s the spot. Cut there. Slowly now. Yes, like that.” Kimberly winced anew, but Baerle was holding her lower arm tightly with her free paw. Blood began to well under the knife, rich and red, soaking into her tan fur suddenly. “There we go, that will work.” Baerle stepped back then, gulping back the bile in her throat, the knife in her paw dripping red.
Jo wasted no time in setting the bracelet on top of the wound, the receptacle directly above the cut. Burris opened his beak and gave a sudden chirping cry, a bird call in fact, one that was so distinctive neither of them had heard it before. The wood began to glow with an orange nimbus, and the ends of the bracelet curled about Kimberly’s arm, clamping it down tightly. The blood that had began to pool around either side of the bracelet remained, but no new blood emerged. “There, it is done,” the woodpecker announced with an audible sigh of relief. “In an hour’s time we should be able to begin.”
“For now,” Jo added, her voice betraying only a sense of momentary relief, “we must make sure she remains comfortable, and that any further contractions she has do no harm to the child.”
Baerle realized she was still standing with the knife in her paw. Flinching in horror, she tossed it into the basin of boiling water in the hearth. A bit of water sloshed over the side and sizzled as it struck the flames.
Alternately, Charles was either sitting and staring at his mazer, or he was pacing back and forth in agitation. Neither activity he managed to maintain for long, but it seemed that the interminable minutes were filled with either. His companions in that predawn hour stayed at his side, each saying what they could think to comfort him, but none ever allaying the fears that swept him in so many disparate directions. Indeed their words were like signposts that contradicted one another, only assisting him in getting further lost in a foreboding forest at night.
There was really only one place that he found that he was consistent about. No matter where he paced, or where he sat, his eyes would always inexorably creep back to the tapestry separating the main hall from his bedroom. In fact, his companions had noted that early on, and both Lars and Angus had taken up residence blocking that doorway so he couldn’t see it anymore. Their wide girth was more than enough to obscure any sign of the tapestry, but he knew it was there still. It was not the tapestry that he wished to look at. He wanted to know what happened beyond.
But for most of that time, he consoled himself by saying that they had not yet begun. The minutes of the hour only slowly trickled by. His clock nearly read six now, and when those chimes sounded, the hour would have been reached. He gazed with dead eyes about the room, scowling at Lars and Angus once more, as he managed to make himself sit down in his couch. “I need another drink.”
“Here you are, Charles,” James said, handing him what was either his sixth or seventh mazer since he’d received the news. Between his second or third he’d finally told his companions the terrible truth, the unutterable horror that now awaited his wife unless Jo and the others were successful in cutting her open and removing the child.
This mazer lasted no longer than the others, but the wash of mead down his throat gave him no comfort. There was a long moment of warmth, and a headiness that accompanied it, but the terrible tragedy of his fears kept it from reducing his mental faculties. It was as if his fear kept him completely sober. He just could not give in to the alcohol, no matter how much he wished to.
The whirring of the clock announced the chimes, but still his head spun when they sounded. Six. Six chimes to mark the hour. Marcus was leaning out the doorway, grimacing. “The sun’s risen. It’s starting to get lighter. I bet Kevin’s reached the Keep with his message by now.”
“Probably,” Garigan mused quietly. “He’s a good flyer.”
“Yes, he’s a good lad. He won’t fail,” Jono said thoughtfully. The feline eyed Charles for a moment and then stood up, stretching his legs, long tail flicking up behind him. “Well, I think I shall just ask and see how your lady wife is doing if you don’t mind, eh?”
Charles blinked, but stayed in his seat. “Please. I don’t... I’m not... I couldn’t... not now.”
“Well, I can,” Jono replied, sauntering almost casually over to where Lars and Angus stood guard. “If you two would step aside for a moment, I’m just going to poke my head in there.”
“They are very busy in there,” Angus pointed out gruffly. “Ask quickly.” The badger stepped along the wall a pace, exposing half of the tapestry. Charles could not tear his eyes away from where the feline slipped his head in. He could hear the question, but it was muffled, and he felt as if the whole world were surrounded in a ball of wax anyway. The reply was too indistinct for him to make out, but the feline withdrew after a moment bearing a moue.
“It seems that they are not quite ready to make the cut as they put it, but that both Kimberly and the baby are still fine. It should not be much longer now.”
“Too long still,” Lord Avery said with a heavy sigh. “My kids will be awake very soon, and they are going to come here looking for us.”
“I’ll take care of them when they come,” Marcus volunteered. Garigan could not hold back his reflexive snort.
“Let them come and stay too,” Charles said. “So long as they behave. They’re just children still.”
Sir Saulius turned and patted him gently on the shoulder. “Thou shalt hast another child soon too, my squire.”
Charles sucked in his breath and dropped the empty mazer to the floor, burying his face in his paws once more. “Eli, please!” he cried out with sudden vehemence. “Please! Please.” his voice fainted into a whisper as he trembled to the very tips of his fur.
“Let us pray then,” Lord Avery suggested. “To both Akkala and Eli. For Charles’s wife and son. Come, there’s nothing more we can do.”
Charles nodded, holding out his hands, saying the words of the prayer to both Akkala and Eli. He couldn’t think straight to be choosy.
Baerle’s legs were sore from standing at the bedside for the last four hours. The now cleaned mortar and pestle were once again back in Jo’s satchel, and the water in the basin was fresh. But apart from that, she had not left Kimberly’s side since they had administered the medicine. The bracelet had not only forced the medicine into her body, but it had also helped close the wound. It would leave a scar still, but not a very large one.
In the hour since, Kimberly had grown calmer and calmer until she could no longer really move that well. Her tongue hung limply out of the side of her muzzle, and a bit of drool dripped down along the edge of her cheek fur. Baerle took a cloth and kept her face clean, and she could still see life within her eyes. Kimberly may not be able to move much, but she could still see her friend. There was a hopeful smile in those eyes, but there was much fear too. Perhaps it was just Baerle’s fear reflected in them, but it was still fear.
“I think we should be able to proceed,” Burris judged at last. The woodpecker had been rubbing one of his wings across Kimberly’s belly once again, his eyes closed in intense concentration. “If she feels anything, it will be faint. Are you ready, Jo?”
The vixen nodded, seating herself between Kimberly’s propped legs. Burris lifted his wing from Kimberly’s belly, and laid the other across her chest and arms. “Just tell me when you are ready and I will make the cut. Lady Avery, be ready to keep the flesh apart so I can reach inside.”
The squirrel nodded gravely, huddled next to Kimberly on the bed, between her legs and where Burris was perched. The woodpecker had done his best not to damage the quilt, but he could not help that his talons had rent gouges in it, just as Kimberly’s claws had. Baerle found herself inexplicably wondering if after the spilling of blood and the rending of the fabric that there would be any way to save it.
“Baerle,” Jo called, even as she held the knife only inches from Kimberly’s belly. “I will need you too.”
The opossum took the two steps to stand at the edge of the bed next to the vixen. She leaned in slightly, her paws gripping each other tightly. She could feel the warmth in the air. It was suffused with strange odours, most of them she found disquieting. She held her breath tightly as Jo lowered the knife, and then pressed it into Kimberly’s soft flesh, between her navel and thighs. Slowly, she slid the knife through the skin from one side to the other, making a cut six inches across. Kimberly did not move, even though the blood began to spill immediately.
Burris began to speak softly, his beak only perceptibly open, but the end of his wing began to glow a faint orange colour as well, and the blood that flowed from the wound seemed almost orderly as it went on its way. As if the blood vessels were being stretched through the air, walls forming to keep the blood moving from one side to another properly. They even arced around Angela and Jo’s paws as they pulled at the flesh, sliding it apart so that the vixen could reach further inside.
“Baerle, can you hold this end open?” Jo requested even as she peeled back the layers of skin beneath. Her paws were already slick with blood, the black fur stained a deeper red than that of the rest of her fur. Reaching in, Baerle gripped the end of the flesh, the one side soft with the short tan fur, the other side squishy and slick with blood. She wanted to close her eyes, but her nose worked too well for that to do any good.
It took several long moments of Jo reaching inside, while the streams of blood slipped effortlessly around her wrists, before she seemed to find what she wanted. The whole time, Baerle looked from the gaping hole and the mess of organs that lay inside, up to Kimberly’s face. But the rat was still basically comatose, her eyes aimlessly staring out into the room.
Jo’s face was tightened into a rictus of concentration. Her eyes narrowed as she peered into the depths of Kimberly’s belly. She brought the knife close again, and began to very carefully slice at one of the organs within. Burris increased his incantation, as more blood began to pool. Even with the invisible walls keeping the streams flowing, quite a bit was leaking into her fur.
“That’s it,” Jo called, setting the knife on the blanket between Kimberly’s legs. She then shoved both her arms deeply within the cavity, turning her snout away in involuntary disgust. Baerle watched as the surface of Kimberly’s belly shifted about while the vixen worked. Her breath was held tightly in her chest, and her fingers pinched at the flaps of skin. “Oh my, it was tangled,” there was a horror in her voice, but it was strangely subdued.
“Is the boy still alive?” Baerle whispered, looking down at the hole they’d cut in Kimberly and wondering how it could have come to this. It did not seem like it was really Kimberly down there. Perhaps this was only a magical construct, an illusion to fool them. Some foul nightmare that would pass with the dawning of the day. How many upon battlefields lost their lives to wounds such as these they had inflicted upon Kimberly? How could they hope to save Kimberly’s life after this? Surely she must die from these wounds, no matter how well Burris’s magic worked.
But then, Jo gave out a cry, and finally began to draw her arms outwards. Within both her paws lay the last of the children, lying still. The umbilical cord was no longer wrapped about his neck, but then neither was he moving at all. “Oh no,” Jo breathed, and then began to rub the child’s chest firmly with one paw, holding the boy on his side. “Lady Avery, cut his umbilical cord. I need to work fast.” She then lowered her muzzle to the child’s and blew deep into his throat.
Angela let go of the folds of skin, and they fell back on each other. Burris let out a chirp of annoyance between his incantations as he had to modify the way the blood was flowing through the air. But the squirrel quickly tied the bits of string tight around the umbilical cord and then took the knife from between Kimberly’s legs and sliced it through the soft pulsing flesh. The cord dangled limply, like a shorn intestine.
“What’s wrong?” Baerle asked, letting go of her sides of the flaps as well. Her paws were now also covered in blood, and she felt faintly sick.
“He’s not breathing. We might be too late,” Jo barked, her voice tight, even as she continued to rub at the child’s tender purple flesh. The vixen backed up then, slowly scooting out from between the rat’s legs and sliding off the side of the bed. “Lady Avery, can you begin to sew Kimberly’s flesh together again. I have to save the child.”
Angela climbed over Kimberly’s legs, and then retrieved the needle and twine that Jo had laid out. “Baerle, I need you to keep her flesh open so I can sew her uterus first.” The opossum was surprised, but did as she was bade, though her eyes were not on the task. Instead, she watched as the vixen continued to rub with one paw, and forcing the child’s muzzle open with the other.
“Oh, yes,” Jo said, as Baerle saw one of the child’s arms begin to move slightly of its own accord. “I think the child will be all right. How is Kimberly?”
Angela gritted her teeth and narrowed her eyes as she continued to sew. “We shall see.” She drew the needle out of her belly, and then plunged it back in again, working the cut closed. Baerle licked her snout, and blanched at the foul taste. Had some of the blood gotten onto her snout? Or was it just in the air now?
“Once you get that baby crying,” Angela suggested, “you should call Charles. It won’t take me long here to get Kimberly sewed up. Is she healing properly?”
This last was asked of the woodpecker, who was still mumbling his incantations, though his voice was beginning to sound stretched and thin. Burris shrugged his wings slightly, but kept on chanting the spells. There was a resigned look to his pearl black eyes that simply told them to wait.
“Well, then we shall wait and see,” Angela announced as she resumed her stitching. Baerle stood there looking from slowly stirring child to the disembowelling cut across Kimberly’s belly. She could not help but feel strangely detached from the whole affair. But it would soon be over, and the blood on her paws would once again prove to her that it was very much real.
It was quiet at first, and the men were not quite sure what to make of it. It was a soft sound, like a murmuring of leaves in the wind, only crisper, as if the leaves were snapping in two. But then it grew in intensity, bit by bit, becoming clearer to them all. Charles lifted his head then, eyes wide and alert, ears perked and turned towards the doorway that the bear and badger still blocked. “What’s that?” His voice quavered as if he were about to break into a fresh round of tears.
Nobody said anything for a moment, though both Lars and Angus stepped aside, peering intently at the tapestry. Charles rose to his foot paws, as if he were lifted by that sound. Finally, his muzzle broke open and he shouted, “It’s my baby!” He jumped forward, nearly toppling over Saulius who was still seated next to him. But he ran to the tapestry, and nearly bowled over Baerle who had come to meet him.
“Baerle, that’s my baby!” he cried again, pushing through the fabric and standing in the doorway. He looked across the room, and saw Burris hovering over his wife, while Lady Avery was doing something to her belly. Jo stood on the other side of the bed, holding the red-skinned infant in her arms. Charles stared in stupefied wonder at it, and broke into tears once more, these of a different sort.
“He’s doing fine, though it took a while to get him crying,” Jo admitted, holding out the child.
Charles held out his paws to accept the babe, but then something happened. He could feel something, some palpable difference in the very air. It was not something he could describe in words, merely it was a presence, one unexpected, but utterly astonishing. It was as if in reaching for the child, he felt the strange sort of energy caused by two lode stones being brought near. Sometimes they clicked together, other times they spun apart, pushed away by unseen hands.
Ultimately, Charles felt a sensation not unlike touching the altar in the Sondeckis Shrine back in Metamor. His voice caught in his throat then, and he yelled, “Garigan! Come quick!”
The ferret was through the tapestry in an instant, a befuddled expression on his face. But that faded in a moment as his eyes turned upon the babe that still had not yet reached Charles’s paws. “By Kammoloth! He’s... he’s...”
“Sondecki,” Charles finished for his student, grinning from ear to ear then, even as the child was deposited into his paws. He pulled the babe close to him, breaking out into a fresh racking sob of untold joy. He felt as if he were floating up off the ground. “My boy! A Sondecki! Praise Eli! My Boy!!!”
“A Sondeck?” Jo asked, her face a mask of sudden sharp surprise.
“Aye,” Garigan said, when Charles became so enraptured by his son that he was incapable of words. “Like we two. It is a gift that one is born with. And this child has it. Has it quite strongly, I think.”
“Well,” Burris called, stepping back from where Kimberly lay. “I have done all I can for her.” Charles turned, his face full of joy became a mask of horror when he saw his wife, laying there with her tongue lolling from her muzzle, eyes seemingly vacant. The woodpecker saw his face and then let out a chirp of surprise. “No, Charles, your wife is fine. The medicine we gave her has done this. She will need a lot of rest, but she is still quite well. If the stitches heal as they should, then she will suffer no ill effects.”
Charles took a long deep breath then, carrying the babe in his arms over to where his wife lay. Her belly had been stitched closed, though a bit of blood still lined the cut. He ran one paw along the side of her face, smiling to her. He leaned forward then and planted a kiss on her nose. Her whiskers seemed to twitch at that, and there was a smile in her eyes. “Here’s our third son, Kimberly. His name...”
It was fitting that this child too be named after someone dear to them. And for Charles, it had to be another Sondecki. His mind scoured all the names of friends that he’d had in that order, but there were only three who he had ever been truly close to. Jerome Krabbe was still alive, wandering the Midlands trying to find his own way. Krenek Zagrosek was there as well, though a dark pall of suspicion had been cast over him, suspicion of dark deeds that were nearly unthinkable. And then there was Ladero Alvarez, the man whose own faith in Eli had led Charles to become a Follower – the most pious of them all. And now, dead in a senseless raid.
The choice was obvious. “His name is Ladero.” Charles presented the child, holding him close to his mother’s snout. “Ladero, say hello to your Mother. She is very brave, and the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me. I love you, Kimberly. I love you!”
Kimberly could not respond of course, but it seemed that her arms tried to lift to hug him close. For several long moments he knelt over her, their last final child, saved from strangulation, tightly between them.
A tap on Charles's shoulder broke him form that pleasant moment with his wife and brought his attention to the vixen. “Charles? Can I speak with you briefly? In private?” She had a strange expression on her face - concern? fear? He wasn't sure.
“Of course.” He carried Ladero with him still over to the large closet just past where the babes were resting in their piles of linens.
Jo kept her attention focussed away from him until she pushed the door closed, then she quickly turned, with that unsettled expression still present. “You didn’t tell us you were a Sondecki.”
A slight chill ran down Charles's spine, and he instinctively clutched his son a little more tightly. It was true he did not talk about it. Many in the Glen knew he was a very capable fighter trained in a strange foreign art, but they did not have a name for it. “Is there a problem?”
Jo seemed to instantly realize she’d put him on the defensive, and started to look a little nervous herself. “No, no, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean... I’m sorry. Jono and I have had a few... problems with a Sondeckis or two in the past. It’s not you. It’s not the Order, either,” she said quickly
Slightly relieved, but still puzzled, he looked at her quizzically. “Oh?”
“Yes... ah... it shouldn’t be a problem, I don’t think...” She trailed off momentarily. Charles was about to turn away, and then she spoke up again. “One thing, though...”
“Your son, Ladero...” She glanced at the bundle in his arms. Ladero was not crying nearly as forcefully as before. Strangely, the child seemed to have found a bit of peace held tightly in his father’s arms. His quiet sobbing seemed perfunctory, done as it was necessary, and not because there was any sorrow in it. “You intend to train him, yes?”
This was an unexpected question, but one with an easy answer. It was almost insulting, but Charles knew better. “Of course.”
She visibly relaxed. “Okay. Good. Just... promise me you’ll keep him able to keep himself under control.”
He sensed that whatever it was she’d run into, it wasn’t exactly pleasant for her, and something in him felt moved to reassure her, especially as Ladero now owed her his life. “I swear it will be so.”
The vixen looked vastly relieved. “Thank you...” Then she brightened. “Well, what are you waiting for? Go introduce your son.”
He laughed brightly then, and did just that.
It was another two hours before Misha and a contingent of Long Scouts galloped up the road to the Glen. They had been riding their horses hard, the animals hides slicked with sweat when the fox and his retinue finally leaped from their backs to rush to the home of their fellow Long.
An hour after they had finished sewing Kimberly back up, she had been strong enough to climb off the bed. Baerle and Lady Avery took off all the old sheets and put out a new pair. The sheets could be cleaned, though the quilt would have to be replaced. Kimberly climbed back into bed, after having the stitches further bandaged so that they would not tear. Burris concocted a few more draughts for her, as did the vixen. Jo gave her several bottles with instructions to take the medicine every day until there was no more left.
Charles had enlisted the help of the other men in moving the blankets filled with baby rats out into the main room where he might better show them off. Most could not really tell them apart, but Charles had no difficulty. He knew them all by sight, scent, and feel. They were a part of his flesh, and he could never mistake that.
As the morning grew brighter, more of the Glenners came to see what had dragged several scouts from their duties the night before. Berchem had given Marcus a brief upbraiding for leaving his post abandoned, but it was brief. Charles could not help but seethe slightly at the sight of the skunk that had used Baerle standing in his home, and he felt sure that the skunk knew that.
Even so, all of the visitors were a pleasure. The Avery children were enthralled when they came to see the babies, and they assured the father that they would show them all the joys of growing up already cursed in animal forms. The two young squirrels seemed to have calmed in the year that Charles had known them, but they were still about as excitable as Marcus was, and that was something that pleased him.
But there was no greater pleasure for the rat than when he heard the pounding of the hooves and saw his friends, his fellow Longs rushing up to great him. He counted at least ten, but Misha was upon him so quickly, he could not see who else had come.
“Charles!” Misha cried, grabbing him about the waist and lifting him high in the air, his manner thrilled. “Congratulations! Where are they?”
Charles’s arms were trapped in the embrace, so he nodded his head to one side. Thankfully, the ceiling of his home was just tall enough that the fox hadn’t smacked his head into it. “Right over there.”
Misha dropped him, and the rat took a deep breath, stumbling on his foot paws a moment as he regained his balance. “Oh they’re so wonderful! They look so... so.... Ah, they are wonderful!”
Charles grinned brightly, even as he saw the other Longs crowding in, each trying to hug him. Caroline, Finbar, Danielle, Arla, and Meredith all managed to before he had a chance to reply. “And you would not believe the tale I have to tell of those five wonders being born this morning. You wouldn’t believe it at all!”
“Is it a glorious tale?” Misha asked, his one ear standing upright, his grey eyes full only of excitement and joy.
It was the feline who interjected, standing tall and speaking expansively, preparing to regale them all with it once more. “A glorious tale? Why ‘tis only the most glorious tale that there ever could be!” Charles smiled broadly as the feline bard Jono began to tell it.
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