Chapter Three, The Midwife

Trying an experiment, faithful readers. Sticking my neck out and posting a sample chapter of my book. It is my favorite chapter. The book is tentatively titled A Question of Honor, as the theme of the book centers around what honor is and what is required of an honorable person. It is set in the Middle Ages, specifically Wales (at this point in the story) in the year 1175. King Henry II is on the throne (father of Richard the Lionhearted and John, popularly mocked in Robin Hood stories with a great deal of inaccuracy, but I digress). Wales is still sort of a separate country, but is pretty much under the dominion of the Normans (they had conquered England 100+ years earlier, which I’m sure all you history buffs recall). My heroine is called Gwenllian. She is a harpist of some considerable talent. She’s willful, and though she’s 17, hasn’t been able to catch a husband. She becomes interested in Elidyr, another minstrel, but he is betrothed to the perfect (and boring) Tangwystyl. Broken-hearted, she pines for him, but decides she can’t quite give up the hope of seeing him, maybe changing his mind. Who knows? Why do women ever torture themselves with unavailable men, but I digress again. Anyway, it is here that I will insert the chapter.

So (yikes) let me know what you think.


Chapter Three – The MidwifeGwen fiercely plucked another weed from her mother’s herb garden. She was tempted to believe one of the fair folk stole into the garden at night and planted the weeds; they seemed to appear so quickly. She wiped her brow with the back of her hand. Her mind began to wander — Elidyr. What was he doing at this moment? Gwen closed her eyes and touched her lips, thinking of the kiss they had shared. She could almost feel it still. Gwen opened her eyes and shook her head. No use thinking about him, she scolded herself. He would marry Tangwystyl.

Gwen scowled and searched for more weeds. Tangwystyl. Gwen rubbed her cheeks. What would Elidyr tell her? Would he tell her he no longer wished to marry her? Did he want to marry her?

“Weeds,” Gwen said aloud to herself. “Find every last weed.” Gwen had hoped weeding the garden would help her turn her thoughts away from Elidyr. She had already tried sewing, taking up a pair of Iorwerth’s breeches to mend. Unable to concentrate on the task at hand, she had sewn one leg to the other.

Gwen’s eyebrows knit together as she uprooted a particularly stubborn weed. She worried about her harp. She had not dared to touch it today, for each time she thought to play it, she thought of Elidyr. She thought of his face as she had played for him yesterday. She thought of his hands as he held her harp. Would she be able to play it again without thinking of him? Foolish girl, she scolded herself. Give it time. It was only yesterday. One day. Give it time.

There, almost done, Gwen thought. Just one more. Now what to do? “Oh, Mam, what would you do?” she said softly.

All around her, Gwen felt her mother’s presence. It was in each carefully cultivated plant in the garden. It was in the soil. It was in herself. Gwen could almost hear her mother, giving her lectures on the medicinal uses of each herb, testing her memory.

“What is the use for yarrow?” her mother had asked, pointing to the plant.

“Ah … it is used in a poultice for wounds. Taken in the form of tea, it relieves headache, flatulence, and…”

“Very good,” her mother had replied.

Gwen smiled, remembering her mother’s gentle hands, tending her garden. Her garden was the envy of every woman in the commote. There was not another like it, excepting the monks’ gardens at Llanddew or Llanfaes. Gwen’s mother supplemented her garden with plants she gathered on pilgrimage to Rome. She also bought from peddlers and collected wild herbs for cultivation in her own garden. How many hours Gwen had spent with her mother, in the little stillroom by the herb garden, hanging herbs to dry, grinding and mixing herbs, brewing teas, and making ointments.

Gwen bent down and cut several stalks of rosemary. She opened the little door to the stillroom and went inside. It was here that her mother had kept all her drying herbs and her equipment for making medicines. The walls were lined with shelves stacked with bottles, jars, mortars and pestles, spoons, and knives. A large vat of water sat in the corner. Gwen would need to empty and replenish it with fresh water from the well.

Gwen sniffed the tiny pale blue flowers of the fresh rosemary and fastened it to a drying rack that hung from the ceiling. Rosemary. Mam said if a girl tapped a boy on the finger with a sprig of rosemary, they would fall in love and marry. Smiling, Gwen reached up and took down one sprig of rosemary and tucked it into her apron pocket. If I happen to see him, I’ll give him a little tap, she thought.

Gwen noticed that the sage she had hung the previous week seemed to be dry. She removed it from the drying rack and lay it on the table. She selected a mortar and pestle from the rack above the table. She crumbled the dried sage leaves into the mortar and began to pound them with the pestle. His eyes were just this color. Sage, with flecks of brown. Gwen pounded the pestle harder. Crushed fresh sage was good for fleabites, she reminded herself. Taken in tea, it stopped night sweats in the sick. Gwen took an empty bottle from the shelf and uncorked it. She shook the mortar lightly, tapping the side to coax the powder on the sides into the bottom of the bowl. Tipping the mortar slightly, she poured the powder in to the bottle and replaced the cork. Wiping her hands on her apron, she looked at the bottle of powdered sage and sighed. It was no use.

Gwen removed her apron and hung it over the table. She licked her fingers and smoothed back a few unruly wisps of hair. She was going to find him, and discover exactly what his intentions were. Her hand was on the door handle when she remembered the rosemary in her apron. A blush crept up her neck. How foolish she was. Yet she did remove it from the pocket and tuck it behind her ear.

Gwen thought it had been a long time since she had seen such a beautiful day. There was not a cloud in the sky. Everyone was outdoors, making the best of the agreeable weather. There was a skip in Gwen’s step. Elidyr was probably staying with Owain. Perhaps she would call on Angharad, to see how she was faring. If she would happen to see Elidyr, well, so much the better.

Gwen rapped on the door of the cottage Owain shared with Angharad. Owain opened the door. Gwen was astonished by his appearance. His face was drawn and pale. Deep circles framed his bloodshot eyes.

“Thanks be to God that you are finally here. I did send for you an hour ago,” Owain said, pulling Gwen inside the cottage.

“Send for me? Why, I received no message from you.” Gwen’s brows drew together in confusion.

“No? How did you know, then, to come? ’Tis no matter; you are here.” Owain said quickly. “The midwife cannot come. She is gone this day to Aberhonddu. Her man says she goes to purchase herbs of the monks at Llanddew. Did you not bring any medicines with you? I fear she does not fare well.”

“Angharad? Is she birthing the child, then?”

“Yes, and she is in great pain. I have been sitting with her all night.”

“I see. What … I should say … The difficulty … Do you know what it seems to be?” Gwen stammered.

Owain shook his head. “She be a small lady, though her hips seemed wide enough.”

Gwen scratched her head. “I will talk with her.”

“That may be difficult as she is often in a faint, it seems.”

Gwen looked at Owain. Poor fool. He was helpless. “Where is she?”

Owain pointed to a bed in the corner of the room. He was right. Angharad almost looked to be sleeping. suddenly, her body convulsed. She gripped the side of the bed and shrieked. Gwen ran to her. Her shift was covered in blood. Gwen took Angharad’s hand and smoothed her hair.

“Owain, bring some cool water. And a cloth.” Gwen pulled back Angharad’s shift and looked between her legs. Blood. Gwen knew women in childbirth often bled like that, but usually after the babe was delivered. Something was wrong.

“Owain, I must go home to fetch some herbs. Sit here and bathe her face,” Gwen ordered. Owain hurried over to the bed with a cool, wet cloth in his hand.

“I shall return directly,” Gwen said as she hurried out the door. Gwen took her skirts in hand and ran back home to her stillroom. Once inside, she grabbed a basket and scanned the shelves. Comfrey. She snatched the bottle and tossed it into the basket. Birthwort? As much as it was needed, she had none prepared. Angharad might birth the child in the six to eight hours it would take to prepare it. Yarrow, blackberry leaves, raspberry leaves – what else? Mam help me remember – what eases the pains of childbirth? Peony. What had Mam said of peony? The flowers were poisonous. Peony extract, in very small amounts, eased convulsions in childbirth. Gwen had never used it before. It might be necessary now.

Gwen rushed back to Owain’s cottage and threw open the door. Angharad’s condition had not improved in the minutes that Gwen had been from her side. Owain’s head snapped up when he saw Gwen come in the door. “Tell me what to do,” he said quickly.

Gwen glanced at the fireplace. “Put some water on to boil.” Gwen rifled through the contents of her basket. Yarrow, blackberry leaves, raspberry leaves. She carefully estimated the amount needed of each and mixed them together, placing them in the small linen bag her mother had made for holding teas. She placed the bag in a tankard that sat on the table next to the bed. There – the rest would have to wait for the water. Gwen walked across the room and stood in front of the fire. Would the water never boil?

After what seemed like ages, tiny bubbles began to rise to the surface of the water. Gwen snatched the pot, burning herself.

“God’s teeth! The tankard, Owain, the one by the bed. Ow!” She set the pot down on the table, a little less than gently. Owain handed her the tankard.

“A ladle?” Owain found one hanging by the fire and handed it to her. She dipped the ladle into the water, then poured the water into the tankard.

“Stir this. It will have to steep,” Gwen said gruffly, handing the tankard to Owain.

Gwen took the jar of comfrey from her basket and poured the contents into the pot, then set the pot back on the fire. Gwen walked over to Owain and looked at the tea brewing in the tankard. It was ready. She took it over to the bed.

“Wake her,” Gwen said, glancing at Owain.

Owain sat on the bed next to his wife. He shook her gently. “My love,” he said soothingly. “Wake up my love.”

He is gentle, Gwen thought. Too gentle. Gwen lightly slapped Angharad’s cheeks. She stirred.

Drink this. It will help the pain,” Gwen said, holding Angharad’s head. She managed to swallow most of the tea.

Owain looked at Gwen, pleading. She cast her own eyes on the floor.

“Gwen?”

“Now we must wait,” Gwen said, crossing the floor to check the comfrey.

Five hours later, Angharad still had not given birth. The tea had not made much difference. Gwen was alarmed by the amount of blood. She had only seen two babies born. She had never delivered one by herself. Gwen rubbed her forehead. Her head ached with fatigue. Owain slumped in a chair by the bed, unable to stay awake.

Gwen lit a candle. It was likely to be a long night. She rubbed her back as she looked out the window. Elidyr, she thought suddenly. Where was he? In all the excitement of the day, she had forgotten him.

A shriek from Angharad startled Gwen from her thoughts. She raced toward the bed. Owain, awakened by the scream, was holding Angharad’s hand. Angharad’s body lurched in convulsions. A fresh gush of blood broadened the stain on Angharad’s shift. Gwen glanced at her basket and thought of the peony extract. She soaked a cloth in the comfrey and handed it to Owain.

“I will need this in a few moments,” she said firmly. She took the peony extract from the basket and uncorked the bottle. Tipping the bottle, she let a few drops fall onto her finger. She forced her finger into Angharad’s mouth and rubbed her neck to induce her to swallow.

Gwen moved to the end of the bed and lifted Angharad’s shift. A tiny bottom was emerging from the opening between Angharad’s legs. Gwen gasped. The babe was breech!

Owain looked at Gwen with alarm. “What is it?” Gwen pulled back Angharad’s shift and pointed. What little color Owain had left drained from his face. “Will she live?”

“I … I cannot say. These births are difficult. I know not what to do,” Gwen said, trembling.

“Owain,” Angharad said weakly. He turned to look at her, still holding her hand.

“Tell her she must push,” Gwen said licking her lips. She felt so thirsty and tired. Crouching at the end of the bed, Gwen reached for the babe.

“My love, you must push,” Owain said softly.

“I can’t. I am too tired. Owain … I am dying. Please call the babe after your tad if it be a boy.”

“Hush, now. You’ll not die.” He put an arm around her and rocked her gently. “You must push, now. Push.”

Angharad’s face contorted with pain as she tried to push. She had not the strength. Gwen tried to slide her hand inside to pull the babe as she had seen the shepherds do with breech lambs. Angharad let out a piercing scream. Gwen thought quickly.

“Owain, make her stand. You will need to hold her up,” Gwen said, scrambling from the bed.

Too distraught and confused to question, Owain did as he was told. Gwen crouched beneath Angharad. The babe’s legs were emerging.

“Good! Now push,” Gwen shouted.

Angharad pushed. Gwen pulled. One arm appeared. “Push again!” Another arm appeared. Gwen anxiously held the quivering babe. “Once more,” she ordered, her voice wavering slightly.

Gwen pulled gently, moving one hand up to catch the babe’s head. Slowly, the head emerged. Gwen held the child in her arms. A girl. Owain quickly lifted Angharad and carried her to the bed. Her skin was pale and clammy.

The air was filled with tiny, mewling cries. Gwen handed the babe to Owain. “Bathe her with that cool water, then swaddle her in those,” Gwen said pointing to a pile of cloths on the table.

Gwen bathed Angharad with the comfrey compress. Taking the empty tankard from the bedside table, she briskly walked over to the pot in the fire. She dipped the tankard into the boiled comfrey and picked up a cloth from the stack on the table. She smiled at Owain, who was attempting to wrap the babe in the cloths, afraid to move her for fear she would break.

Comfrey to stop bleeding, Gwen recited to herself. In the absence of proper straining, Gwen hoped a cloth would do. Gwen placed the cloth over Angharad’s mouth and pulled her to a sitting position. Holding the tankard to her lips, Gwen forced her to drink. Exhausted, Gwen sat on the floor and rubbed her temples.

Owain handed her the baby and grabbed his wife’s hand.

“Gwenllian,” Owain said. His voice was strangled.

“Mmm?” Gwen said blearily. She lifted her head and looked into Owain’s eyes.

“Gwen, she is dead.” His eyes were brimming with tears.

Gwen leaped to her feet. “Are you sure?” She grabbed Angharad’s arm, hoping he was mistaken. Limp. Lifeless. He was not.

Gwen felt as if all the blood had drained out of her own body as surely as Angharad’s blood had drained from hers.

The tears began to spill freely down his face. “What should I do Gwen?” His soft brown eyes were large and pleading, like those of a deer. “I can’t … I can’t.” Owain choked, then began sobbing like a child. Gwen shifted the babe to one arm and reached out to touch Owain’s head with her free hand. He slumped against her chest.

Gwen shook her head. She felt numb. What should she do? What should she do? She raked her fingers through Owain’s hair. Think. Think. The babe would need to eat soon. How would they feed the poor little thing?

“Elen,” Gwen said suddenly, thinking of the plump miller’s wife, Tangwystyl’s mother. “Did she not birth a babe a fortnight ago?” Gwen asked.

Owain did not reply. He likely did not even hear, Gwen thought. Perhaps Elen could nurse the babe.

“Owain, get up.” Gwen grabbed a handful of hair and gently shook Owain’s head. “We must go see the miller’s wife.”

“Why?” Owain’s voice was childish, pleading.

“Your daughter must nurse,” she said softly.

Owain looked alarmed. “Will she die, too?”

Gwen shook her head. “We must take her to Elen.”

“I do not want to give her to Elen,” His voice was rising with panic. “She is all I have.” He impulsively reached for the babe. Gwen carefully handed her to him.

“That is not what I meant, Owain,”

“I can take care of her. I’ll get her some milk from one of my ewes.”

“Owain, you cannot feed her that. Not until she has grown.”

“But Gwen, what will I do? What do I feed her? I know not what to do.” Owain was truly helpless, Gwen thought. Elidyr’s face came to her mind. His sage-colored eyes. His hair, like honey. She looked at her feet.

Lord, I cannot, she thought to herself. She looked down at the tiny babe. Elidyr will marry Tangwystyl, reminded a tiny voice inside her mind. Gwen rubbed her eyes. Elidyr. Elidyr.

“I will marry you,” she whispered, half-hoping he had not heard. “I will be her mother.”