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Strawberry Swing

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“You’re sure?” Yggdra asked, but her voice sounded very bleak. Roswell brushed fingertips along her shoulder surreptitiously, wanting to give her support without being too obvious about it in front of the courtiers who would seize any and every perceived weakness.

The messenger turned towards Durant, who nodded.

“I personally identified the body, Your Majesty. …It was most certainly him.”

Yggdra closed her eyes and breathed in. Strands of her hair clung at her temples in the summer heat. “And the cause of death?”

“I apologize. We cannot be certain whether it was an accident or suicide.”

“I see.” Her eyes opened halfway, and the blue under the lids seemed very distant. She had not really grown since the end of the war—she had none of the faint age lines or early graying of the hair that some of their allies displayed—but Roswell knew that the shadows beneath her eyes were deeper these days, that her eyes seemed more ancient. “In any case, we’ll give him a funeral with full honors.”

“My lady.” Durant watched her, eyes wide and wondering.

Yggdra smiled a little, and Roswell’s chest ached to watch her. “I don’t mean to ignore what he became in the end. But all the same, it would be a disservice to his memory to forget his deeds and the person he used to be.”

 

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That had been towards the end of June, and although it had been hot, the weather had been clear and windy on the day Milanor’s body was laid to rest.

The weather gave no such quarter when Yggdra went into labor in early July.

It was brutally hot and humid and the weatherwitches promised that it was going to stay that way all week unless there was rain, which no one could sense building anywhere. There hadn’t been anything planned for the day, really, and Roswell had just finished pinning Yggdra’s hair up elaborately to keep it out of her face when the queen had gone ashen and touched her belly and said in a low urgent voice that she was fairly sure that she had just had a contraction.

As far as they could pin down an exact conception date, it was still about a week early, but with twins Roswell supposed that there was only so much room to spare and only so many ways to deal with running out of space. The healers were fetched, Yggdra was shucked out of all her clothes but a white shift, and he was ejected unceremoniously from the room.

Midwifery was traditionally female magic, and so Roswell forced himself not to complain, instead sitting down to play chess with Durant to distract himself. This worked for the first twelve hours, but since there had been no word about Yggdra since a healer had come down to say that her actual labor had begun, he eventually lost patience and went back up to the tower.

“Men shouldn’t be present in a birthing room, especially husbands,” said the woman at the door.

Roswell smiled at her grimly. “I will list to you my healer’s credentials if you deem it necessary. If there’s anything I can do for my wife, I’d like to be there to do it.”

And there were things to be done, he learned. The women had judged from experience that Yggdra’s labor would be slow—and difficult, as well, at least if the proper steps weren’t taken. Her pain could be dulled, but not taken away entirely, because it was there to help tell her when to push when the time came. She had to be kept from overheating, since the strain on her body kept generating heat. Her muscles had to be kept limber, kept from bruising or tearing.

Roswell helped with these things, and was often sent to get water or to get food as the day went by. The healers had told them that this wouldn’t be over in a single day, and when he’d seen Yggdra simply bite her lip and nod, he hadn’t been able to say anything. She was determined to do this, and so he had to support her to the best of his ability. As it always had been. As, gods willing, it always would be.

“She’s strong,” he told Durant and Elena when the three of them met in the hallway on one of Roswell’s trips to get new linens and a water pitcher. “She’s twenty years old, and she’s strong, and she has the best in the kingdom helping her. She’ll be all right.” If he said it enough times, he would believe it.

Elena nodded to him and said that she would be going to the chapel to pray.

“Our guards are stationed,” Durant murmured to him in a low voice. “We’re watching for any movement on the court’s behalf. If Her Majesty’s suspicions are confirmed, we should be able to suppress any attempts on the lives of the heirs, but please be on your guard.”

Roswell thanked them both deeply and returned to Yggdra’s side.

The worst part was the exhaustion. Her cervix was dilating already, if very slowly, said the midwife in chief, and so Yggdra had to be ready to complete the birth at any time. She could not sleep. There was a limit to how much they could do to stave off her tiredness, as coffees and teas could be harmful to the babies, the same as any powerful magecraft.

It was slightly less than twenty-four hours after the first contractions that they had deemed her ready, and Yggdra closed her eyes and breathed and held on to Roswell’s hand. He focused his power and sent her calm, strength, and his love.

Even so, it was not until dawn broke that Yggdra was finally instructed to push.

She did not scream. Her eyes went damp sometimes—she even whimpered a little when the midwife told her that the baby’s shoulders were next—and she clung to Roswell’s hand so strongly that her nails started to bite into his flesh, but she bore up stoically under the pain. Watching her, he realized that he had not felt so helpless since the deaths of his own parents.

At that time, he had fought back against his own powerlessness by learning necromancy. Now, he could give a pale sliver of healing to his wife, but that was all; he simply had to believe in her.

It was perhaps the hardest thing that could have been asked of him, but Roswell couldn’t complain of that while watching a woman give birth. He just held Yggdra’s hand and tried to keep his nervousness from frightening her.

“You have a little girl,” the head midwife announced at last, and passed the infant that was starting to whimper to her assistants. Yggdra gritted her teeth and tears streamed down her face like silent rain as she delivered the afterbirth, and then eased back against the pillows, breathing hard. Her chest rose and fell sharply, and the cords were standing out in her neck.

She let go of his hand so that their daughter could be passed to him. The baby had been swaddled and only her face and tiny hands peeped out of the blankets. Her eyes blinked open every now and again, and when they did they were a blue that was nearly black. Roswell did not have any idea what to say.

He realized that Yggdra was watching him and looked up. “Do you want to hold her?”

She smiled—the first time her expression had relaxed in at least thirty hours—and shook her head. Her hair was coming down and clinging at her sweat, and she was beautiful. “I don’t think I’m strong enough to hold her up. She’s all right with you for now.” Even so, Yggdra reached out to touch the baby’s blankets. “Hello, Orianthe. Happy birthday.”

Baby Orianthe—this strange daughter creature that had come from the two of them—yawned a tiny yawn and went to sleep, apparently unimpressed with existence, and Roswell gave up ever hoping to know what to do with himself.

“I hope you enjoyed the past several hours’ part of this, because very soon now we’re going to do it all again,” said the midwife.

“Will there be enough time for her to rest, at least?” Roswell couldn’t help but ask, his brow creasing, and the midwife and her healers all looked at him like they thought he was a crazy person.

“If by ‘rest’ you mean ‘sleep for ten minutes and maybe nurse the first baby’, then yes, sir,” one of the younger healers said. She sounded like she was trying to strike a compromise between sarcasm and genuine helpfulness. Roswell sighed. Yggdra also sighed, and closed her eyes. One of Orianthe’s tiny hands wound about her mother’s forefinger.

Yggdra stayed asleep for twenty minutes, and was awakened by fresh contractions; as Orianthe awakened at the same time and had started to make discontented noises, it was decided that Yggdra could go ahead and nurse the baby for a while before things got too bad, as she had a high pain tolerance anyway. Yggdra gave them all a very bland look as though it was good that they had agreed because none of them were going to tell her what to do anyway, undid the top buttons of her shift, and peeled the fabric off her skin to bare a breast. Roswell carefully handed her their daughter, and Yggdra settled her in a businesslike manner. The baby latched on and settled down.

He didn’t move to take their daughter back as soon as she was fed—Yggdra had after all not gotten the chance to hold her yet, and was smiling down at the scrunch-faced little scrap of humanity like a saint in a painting.

Then the contractions strengthened, Yggdra’s expression bowed into a grimace, and Roswell gently lifted Orianthe out of the circle of her mother’s arms to set her down in the cradle he’d pulled up beside the bed. Yggdra needed his hand, and a baby was too heavy to carry indefinitely; this way he could hold onto his wife and his child both. After what Yggdra had told him about her suspicions regarding Luciana and Aegina, no amount of midwifely skepticism could convince him that her fears of assassination were unfounded.

Yggdra still did not scream. She went very pale towards the end and swore loudly and sharply once (she had torn something, the healers announced), and as the second baby was pulled from her body, Roswell was ordered to help stop her bleeding before it got to be bad. He rested his hand over her abdomen and did what he could as Yggdra swore again, more quietly but much more rudely.

And with that—after something close to thirty-six hours of labor—the crisis was averted.

The room was a mess—it smelled of sweat and blood and birthing fluid—and windows were opened widely in an attempt to air the place out, as Yggdra and the babies could not be moved immediately, especially since Yggdra needed what rest she could get.

The younger twin, who was a little bit bigger than the first (hence the tear), was also a girl. This baby was placed directly into Yggdra’s arms after being cleaned.

“We never could decide on another name,” Roswell realized aloud as the two of them looked at their other daughter.

Yggdra considered the baby for a while.

“Roseclere,” she announced at length.

“Roseclere?”

“Roseclere.”

He nodded and looked down, smiling, at the baby paddling the air with her minuscule hands. “Roseclere it is, then.”

Yggdra had a few more moments with her daughter before she began nodding, upon which Roswell gently lifted the baby out of her arms and set her down next to Orianthe (“Meet your sister”). The healers were still trying to get air to circulate in and out of the room.

“Will you go out and announce the news to the others, milord?” one asked.

“No,” he told her, “I can do that once Yggdra’s awake. I’d rather stay with my family right now.”

She nodded and went about her business, Roswell turned back to his sleeping wife and the babies, and that was that.

 

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And life went on.