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Behind the Curtain

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He couldn’t help but feel restless tonight as if something was wrong, something was about to happen. It was not a bad feeling or premonition, but he couldn’t sleep either way. Since the moment he’d fallen into bed, tired and cold, he kept tossing around, trying every possible position that existed. And just after he’d laid face down into the pillow and almost suffocated himself from the clear despair, he heard a knocking.

It didn’t startle him because it was too late, but because the knocking didn’t come from the place he would have expected. He flinched and looked into the darkness, where he knew the hidden door was built-in, just next to the massive oak-wooded bookcase.

“Pssst,” somebody hissed, and even though Radzig couldn’t tell much from the sound itself, he could say for sure it was a man behind the door, and a very nervous one, in hurry, breathing hard. “My lord, it’s me. Martin.” A heartbeat. “The blacksmith.” Another one. “It’s… it’s happening.”

Ah. No wonder he sounded so anxious, then. Radzig could pretend all he wanted, but as long as the door was closed… he allowed himself one short moment of panic. He jumped out of the bed, even more awake now. Suddenly, a whole mountain of worries and disastrous scenarios fell over him and he could hardly breathe. It’s here, it’s happening. She… they are going to have a child. Tonight. What if Anne doesn’t make it? What if the child doesn’t survive? What if something happens?

Why should he even care?

He was shivering just like a raindrop on a leaf would, his head spinning.

“Why did you come to me?” he whispered back while stumbling across the room he should have known better by now. He couldn’t even see his own hands but felt clearly they were shaking uncontrollably. It had to be the cold, there was snow outside, lots of it, the fire in the fireplace extinguished long time ago and he was barefooted, who wouldn’t be shaking? There was a silence behind the door.

“I thought that you would like to be there,” Martin replied, clearly confused. Why, why does he think of me, why is he so kind, does he want me to suffer even more? “I know you want to,” the blacksmith continued, meanwhile Radzig just threw a dirty look at the hidden door. And even though he knew how useless his gesture was, he raised his eyebrows so significantly that it could be heard in the silence. “I thought you might be interested, my lord,” the expected addition came at last. Radzig was never against familiar addressing of his person, but he wanted to keep the distance from the blacksmith’s family, at least on the outside so he didn’t get used to them being friendly too much. And even though they were alone now, he feared that he might become too comfortable with it, if he were to allow it in private. Somebody might notice, somebody might put two and two together and that was hardly wanted.

He opened the door and let the cold breeze come into his quarters. Martin had a small candle in his lantern, which shed a pleasant warm light into the room. Radzig was glad he could blame the winter for the shivering, he was, after all, just in his nighshirt. Martin wore his work clothes, his cheeks were red from the freeze, the trousers soaked from wading through the snow.

“Just let me change, go ahead. I’ll be there,” Radzig promised quietly, then stopped himself. “Wait!” he hissed, taking the blacksmith’s arm. “Do you… do you have a midwife there? Do you need me to get you something from here? Is everything…”

“Anne is alright,” Martin answered and patted his shoulder. Radzig hated him for that, for being calm, for being always the reasonable one. He didn’t come because he was scared or needed help. He came because he knew Radzig cared, and what was worse, he didn’t expect gratefulness. Radzig knew he didn’t. “We have everything we need. She had a feeling it’s coming so we were ready. I didn’t even go to bed tonight.”

***

He avoided the guards easily enough, nobody really knew about the secret paths in the castle, aside from his father, Martin and himself. He stopped behind the main gate and his brow furrowed as he looked at the untouched snow around him, thinking, for a little moment, that it could have been a dream and he was out there for nothing else than startling the blacksmith and his wife in the middle of the night, when he realized Martin had probably taken a longer route as to not make any tracks leading anyone curious enough to the hidden door to the castle. He alone then turned around and took one very unpleasant and long walk around the village and over the market before getting to the house he was aiming for.

He was soaked through when he finally arrived. In the hallway he dropped his heavy cloak and glanced at the bench where Martin was sitting, hunched over and looking extremely anxious. His hands were folded with such force that his knuckles went completely white. The kitchen door was closed. It was only when Radzig took a breath to ask if something had happened when the first of the dozens of pained screams came out. He flinched and didn’t say a word. It had probably gotten worse when he was on his way here. Martin firmly closed his eyes.

None of them was the most prolific Christian, but they both knew that if there ever was a good time for praying, it was now.

After about an hour, everything went quiet. Outside the snow was falling, and if somebody dropped a raven feather on the floor it would have been heard. Both men on the bench looked at each other, somewhat connected in the darkness, the same prayer on their lips, overcome by a sudden fear that froze them in the place. Then the child started crying and they took a breath as one. Before the midwife could open the door to let the happy father know whether he had a son or a daughter, Radzig had disappeared into the pantry, a cold and dark room in the back of the house. He nearly laughed when he accidentally kicked over the empty wicker basket and heard the woman ask – do you have rats here?

Another hour passed before the midwife Ludmila was satisfied with the outcome of her work. The mother was alright, the baby as well, the father looked more or less stable enough to take care of them both until the morning when she promised to check on them again. She came out to the chilly night with a smile playing on her lips.

Radzig then walked quietly into the kitchen, where the fire was burning beneath the stove and warming the room. The tips of his fingers were tingling by the sudden return of a feeling, his eyes watering from the sudden wave of heat. He had to blink frantically before he could notice Anne at all. She was there, sitting on two benches pushed together and leaning against the wall, the straw and blankets under her, wearing a woolen blanket she had inherited from her grandmother, and…

His lungs seized, but no cough came. It was so tiny. Should the baby be so tiny? Should it be so quiet?

Through her exhaustion Anne beamed at him, and Radzig thought she had never been more beautiful than at this moment, her face pinkish and hair disheveled, eyes like two bright stars, a baby in her arms. He stood there by the door in mute astonishment until Martin, laughing at his shock, nudged him forward. Suddenly, he felt a sense of impropriety as though he had nothing to do there, as if crossing some boundaries, as if witnessing a moment to be shared only by the two parents.

If a pair of strong hands was not pushing him forward, he would have turned around and run out into the freezing cold.

Anne reached out and put the small bundle into his arms, without warning or even a sign of hesitation. He almost shuddered again, carefully putting the child’s head into the crow of his elbow, holding breath while watching the infant’s face. The boy blinked it him, and he felt so terribly light and fragile and heavens above – he knew it there and then, he would protect the child with his life.

“It’s Henry,” Anne whispered softly as to not startle any of them, the baby or the real father.

Radzig just realized that he had been allowed to hold the baby before Martin. They didn’t try to make him feel unwelcome or ashamed, there were no threats or remainders of Martin’s kindness. They both were disgustingly selfless, too good and ridiculously happy, radiant with joy. He turned quickly around and handed the baby to Martin, perhaps just to prove he was not childish. The blacksmith took the boy with a tenderness nobody had ever witnessed in him before, and then smiled down at him.

The image almost choked him. He shouldn’t have come here. He was not supposed to see this, he was not supposed to be here, to touch the child at all, to feel the urge to kiss the boy on his forehead and be there for him. Silently, unknowingly, he made a promise – I will always keep an eye on you.

The sudden wave of envy made him nauseous, that forbidding and repulsive emotion he had always disdained, and at the moment, it was hate he could also feel, hate towards himself for feeling it, towards Anne for being so happy without him, for letting him go so easily, for giving him that happy smile, towards Martin for being kind, for stealing this from him, for being there.

Martin then slowly walked over to his wife’s bed, the baby still in his arms. He sat down and they looked at each other, eyes full of wonder and joy. The baby was strong and healthy and Anne was alright. Everything was perfect. They held hands, never noticing their landlord leaving and quietly closing the door behind him.