In the middle of the night, the contractions have become worse. They started early this morning, but I went throughout the day telling myself that it was only the false labor that Keiry had once described. Nothing to worry about. I'd gone to bed thinking that I could sleep them away. But now, they have grown stronger and closer together, making sleep impossible. I finally allow myself to accept the possibility that this could be the real thing.
The problem is that it is more than a month too soon.
"A child of trouble," the seer had warned. If I were so inclined, I might believe her. This whole pregnancy has been nothing but trouble. The extreme mood swings, the nightmares, the bloating, the bleeding gums, swelling so bad I can barely walk or grasp a fork, the lapses of memory, even temporary vision loss.
But the sickness, which has not been confined to the mornings and has occurred every day until this one, is the worst part.
The witches always made pregnancy sound like the most sacred state of being, but it hardly feels sacred to me. Except, that is, for when I feel my baby move. There are hardly words to describe that miracle. I have decided that if I have a boy, I will love him and refuse to throw him away--no matter what Galaea has to say about it. But somehow, I just have a feeling...
"Please, baby," I beg softly. "Stay put for a while longer."
The baby responds to my request with the sharpest, longest contraction yet.
And then a gush of water flows down my legs.
Shit. No, no, no!
"Markius!" I cry. "Wake up. The baby's coming!"
"Huh?" Markius opens his bleary eyes. "What about the baby?"
"The baby is coming! NOW!"
"Couldn't be," he murmurs, "it's much too early..."
Then his head turns away from me and I hear a loud snore.
Damn it. I wish more than anything that my mother were here. She would know what to do. She would hold my hand and tell me not to be afraid, that everything would be all right.
There is only one thing that I can think of to do. I stumble to my vanity and pull the golden gatekey from the drawer.
Then I think of the one person I have left to go to.
She is sleeping, of course, when I appear at her bedside. Considering that she has broken into my room in the middle of the night before, I am sure she will forgive my intrusion--especially at such a time as this.
"Wha?" She pulls herself up. "What's happening?"
"The baby," I gasp before the next contraction steals the rest of my words.
"Oh my... Don't worry! I'm going to get help."
She runs out the door into the inky blue night. The camp is silent, but not for long.
Keiry returns with Pertessa and Hexia, who burst inside the hovel.
"How far along are you?" Pertessa demands.
"Twenty-nine weeks," I answer. "Please save my baby."
She looks at me gravely. "We will try."
Keiry makes her bed and prepares a place for me to lie down.
When I am settled, she holds my hand. "It's going to be all right," she says softly, "somehow. Just keep breathing."
I burst into tears. I want my mother. She should be here for this.
"Corynne, this baby is determined to come tonight," Pertessa tells me. "If we gave you anything to stop your labor now, the child could die."
"No! Do whatever you have to, whatever you can. Please."
"I assure you, we will. But it is awfully early. Survival is not unheard of, but it is rare."
The two snowy-haired women get to work, constantly prodding me with their frozen, bony fingers. Then, when it is time, they instruct me to push.
This is the hardest part. The pain of it is terrifying in itself, but there is a greater agony inside of me. Survive, I beg. I need you to live. Please.
I need you.
And then, when the baby finally reaches the outside, I hear the worst sound. Silence.
Pertessa and Hexia carry my child away and hover over the pale, lifeless little body. I can hear their labored panting but I don't know what they are doing. "Breathe," Pertessa commands.
I struggle to catch my own breath. My heart feels as though it is being strangled.
"No!" Keiry gasps. "Oh, please no."
But then there is a new sound.
It is weak and strained, but it is a cry all the same. My baby is alive.
A few more moments go by and the crying becomes stronger. The witches cheer and I'm sure the look of relief on Keiry's face matches my own.
"Your baby is small, but she is strong," Pertessa says.
"Your daughter is a fighter at heart. I can tell."
She lays the tiny baby into my arms. My daughter. I look into the bluest eyes I have ever seen and try to calm her cries. She is very white. Perhaps her color will come later. Regardless, she is beautiful.
Hexia leaves and I am certain that I know who she is going to.
The rejoicing inside the hovel is short lived, and quiets when she returns. Galaea walks through the door, bringing an icy draft with her.
"What have we here?" She looks down on us with such a glare that I fear for my baby. I do not know the lengths that Galaea would go to have her way, but I suspect they are endless. "So you had a daughter." Her tone is murderous.
"Oh happy morning," she says without a trace of happiness, but she smiles anyway. "Behold: our new Witch Queen."
She leaves quickly and the others follow so I can feed my daughter and get some rest. Once the door is closed, I hear Galaea's true sentiments.
"It can't be! Two boys born last year, two dead, and after a year of consecration and fervent prayer, the Goddess blesses the least worthy!"
"The Goddess works in mysterious ways," Pertessa's voice answers gently.
"That child looks like a white rat!"
"Jyaell herself had hair of white. Perhaps it is a sign."
"Or perhaps the child will die. She is a sickly little thing. Only time will reveal the Goddess's true plan."
"I don't care what she says," I tell my baby, and lift her up so that I can gaze into that impossible blue. "No one can change who you are or what you were born to be.