Ashael awoke early, the late autumn sun not yet up. The home she shared with Bhearra was quiet. Perhaps she had awoken before her mentor for a change. Maybe today she wouldn’t feel like she was trying to catch up with the old woman all day long. Hurrying through her morning routine, Ashael swept aside the curtain that separated her alcove from the main room. Bhearra’s curtain was still closed. Ashael moved quietly to the hearth in the centre of the room and raked the embers around, adding kindling to get the flames going again.
Ashael busied herself mixing herbs for tea and preparing some food then set about checking their supply of herbs in the various baskets that lined the shelves carved into the far wall. The grey light of pre-dawn began to seep through the small window and Ashael looked uneasily towards Bhearra’s sleeping quarters. The older woman usually rose first, and in the two summers since Ashael moved in with her, she had never stayed in bed long after her young apprentice was up. Could she be unwell?
Perhaps someone needed her during the night, Ashael thought as she filled the leather cauldron with water and set it over the fire. But wouldn’t she have woken me?
The light grew stronger and still there was no movement from Bhearra’s alcove. Ashael had almost decided to check on her when Bhearra stepped through the entrance to their home, flushed and bright-eyed.
‘Good morning, dear,’ Bhearra said. ‘It’s getting chilly in the mornings.’
‘I thought you were still in bed,’ Ashael said, nodding towards the curtained-off alcove.
‘Well, not my bed,’ Bhearra answered, chuckling at the shocked expression on Ashael’s face. ‘I’m old, not dead.’
‘I just … I’m sorry,’ Ashael stammered. ‘I didn’t mean to offend you; I just didn’t realise that you were involved with anyone.’ Faces of people from the cam ran through her mind as she tried to figure out who Bhearra had spent the night with.
‘Not so much involved as two old friends keeping each other warm on a cold night,’ Bhearra said, smiling to herself and walking over to the cauldron. Ashael watched Bhearra pick up the bowl of herbs for the tea and sniff them before tipping them into the water. The filidh was the oldest member of the cam, old enough that she was no longer sure exactly what age she was. Her character and strength of spirit took up so much space that it was easy to forget how tiny she was. Of course, Ashael was unusually tall so the difference between them was even greater.
‘What are your plans for the day?’ Bhearra asked, pushing white hair back from her bronze forehead.
‘The pepper-root is almost finished,’ Ashael said. ‘I thought I might head out to gather some from along the stream. Maybe look for mushrooms while I’m out. Is there anything else that you would like me to do?’
‘I had thought to work on meditation today but we can do that upon your return. How is Alayne? I haven’t seen her for a few days.’
‘She is well,’ Ashael answered, smiling at the thought of her friend. ‘Getting big but glad that the sickness has passed.’ She served the food she had prepared and settled herself on the floor near the fire.
‘I expect we’ll meet her little one before Longest Night. Perhaps I will visit her this morning, and then see Soraya. Her baby will be here any day,’ Bhearra said settling down beside Ashael to break their fast together.
The two women emerged from their home together and, as she did every morning, Ashael touched the bark of the massive hollow tree that housed them and gave it her thanks. An acorn bounced off of her shoulder and Ashael gave a surprised laugh. She picked it up and showed it to Bhearra.
‘He gave you a gift,’ Bhearra said. ‘You should keep it.’
Ashael looked up at the tree that soared above her, leaves turning to their autumn colours, blazing against the blue of the sky.
‘Thank you,’ she said aloud before tucking the acorn into the travelling pouch hanging from her belt.
Alayne’s home was in the same direction as the path to the stream so Ashael and Bhearra set off together. Oak Cam was a clearing in the forest surrounded by ancient trees. The folk made their homes here, most in wooden huts between the huge tree trunks though some of the younger folk had been more adventurous and had begun to build homes high up in the mighty branches. Walkways criss-crossed above the clearing from one tree to another. At the north end of the clearing, two massive trees towered above the others. These were the oaks that gave Oak Cam its name and housed Bhearra, the cam’s filidh, and Joren, the cam’s leader.
Ashael waved at a group of wood workers who sat together shaping some tools while another group sat nearby, working with stone. Young children ran around the cam chasing each other and laughing. In the centre, close to the Heart-Fire, older children were working on drying meat from yesterday's hunt. Ashael paused as three youngsters raced past, one almost knocking her over.
'I'm sorry, Ashael, please forgive me!' the boy gasped.
'Don't worry about it.' Ashael tousled the boy's hair and waved him off.
A shout drew the filidh’s attention as Bres, Soraya's husband, hurried towards them.
'Bhearra, it's Soraya. The baby. I think there's something wrong! Please, hurry.'
Bhearra and Ashael set off after Bres. Hurrying across the cam, the world started to tilt and Ashael stumbled to her knees. Bhearra stopped beside her but Ashael waved her on.
‘I’m fine, go to Soraya.’ Ashael hung her head until the dizziness started to pass.
As she struggled to her feet, she saw a flash of a scarred face and her heart started to race. As quickly as it had come, the vision faded. Ashael found herself panting, limbs trembling with the desire to flee. What in the All-Mother’s name was that? Heart rate slowing, she shook herself and hurried on.
Ashael started to speak as she entered the hut, intending to tell Bhearra what had just happened but she stopped as soon as she saw Soraya. The pregnant woman was lying on furs on her sleeping pallet at the back of the hut, face ashen and covered with sweat. Bres stood to the side, anxiously wringing his hands and shifting from one foot to the other as he told Bhearra how the pains had started just before dawn but gotten much worse just a short time ago. Soraya had started vomiting and developed a fever. Ashael went back outside and called to the children playing nearby.
'Soraya's baby is coming and Bhearra and I will need some things. Can you help?'
‘What do you need?' asked Con, the eldest of the group and the boy that had almost knocked Ashael over earlier.
‘We need two buckets of fresh water from the stream. We're also going to need new hides; the softest ones you can find. Can you manage that?’
'I'll get those. I know where the best ones are,’ Con said hurrying off.
Ashael ducked back into the hut. Soraya was groaning as Bhearra felt her stomach, the filidh’s eyes closed as she listened to her other senses. Ashael went to her side, placing her hands over her mentor’s. She tried to stretch her senses beyond herself, the way that Bhearra was teaching her.
At first all she felt was Bhearra’s familiar presence, glowing beside her. Soraya groaned again and with her breath, Ashael felt her pain, deep in her own abdomen. She winced, then tried to stretch her senses further. She caught onto the thread of Bhearra’s spirit and followed it. Finally, she sensed the baby. It was frightened and in pain. For a moment, Ashael felt as if she were suffocating, her breath coming in shallow gasps. Then Bhearra touched her shoulder and she was back in herself.
'The baby is in distress,’ Bhearra said. ‘Soraya, I want to give you something to hasten things along, get the baby out of there. Do you understand?'
Soraya nodded, gasping in pain. Bres held a cup of water to her lips as Bhearra stood and motioned Ashael outside.
'The baby's heartbeat is weak. I'm not sure why, but it's serious. Go home and get some willow bark for the pain and loxin to speed things along. Let Joren know what's happening here. I hope the Gods are with us this day.' Bhearra headed back inside as Ashael hurried off about her tasks.
All-Mother, you who gave birth to the world, watch over this woman and her child, Bhearra prayed silently. She had lost the thread of the baby’s consciousness and was deeply worried.
Soraya screamed as another contraction struck. Ashael wiped the pregnant woman's face with a cloth dipped in cool water. Bres paced the room. It was mid-afternoon and Soraya was exhausted.
'We're almost there now, Soraya, get ready to push.' Bhearra squeezed Soraya's hand, keeping her voice calm, trying not to show her concern. The poor woman was frightened enough.
As the next contraction arrived, Soraya pushed as hard as she could, gripping Bhearra’s hands hard enough to press the old bones together, and the top of the baby’s head appeared.
'I can't. I can't push anymore.'
'One more and the head will be out and then I can help you,' Bhearra replied, voice soothing. She pushed a little of her own energy into the woman before her. She had been doing this for some time now and did not have much more to spare.
With the next contraction, the baby's head was out, face white and lips blue. Bhearra soon saw why – the umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby's neck. Another contraction pushed a shoulder out while Soraya screamed, and Bhearra was able to get her fingers under the umbilical cord and pull it slightly away from the baby's neck. With quick, sure movements, Bhearra took the foraging knife that attached to her belt and cut the cord, pulling the baby the rest of the way out with the next contraction.
Bhearra moved her body, hiding the baby from sight. She had not yet taken a breath. Bhearra blew into the baby's face and then slapped her bottom. Still nothing.
“What's happening? Is the baby ok?' Soraya asked, gasping in exhaustion.
'Ashael can help you with the afterbirth – I'm just going to get the baby cleaned up.'
Bhearra moved towards the doorway as she spoke, Bres close at her back. Speaking in a low voice, she told him what had happened while Ashael tended to Soraya. Bres looked back at his mate and began to weep silent tears.
'Hush now, all is not lost.'
Bhearra held the baby before her, then closed her eyes, once more stretching her senses out beyond her own body, searching for the lingering spirit of the baby. Nothing. Nothing. There! A spark of life floated nearby. The filidh breathed this spark in and then blew it gently toward the baby's face. Nothing happened. Please, All-Mother.
The baby gasped and let out a great cry.
Bres fell to his knees and Soraya burst into tears. Bhearra gave a small smile and let out a shaky breath as she moved over to Soraya and handed the baby to her.
'You have a beautiful baby girl. What will you name her?'
'We don't know yet. I wanted to see her before naming her.’
‘Sirion bless you. You saved her life.’ Bres said. ‘How can we ever thank you?'
'Nonsense, I didn't save her, I just showed her the way home. She did the rest herself.'
By the time they left Soraya, there was not enough light in the day to go foraging so Ashael headed home with Bhearra.
‘What you did was amazing,’ Ashael said, looking at her mentor in awe.
‘Truly, I did little,’ Bhearra answered.
‘I saw her, Bhearra. And felt her. The baby was dead and you brought her back to life.’
‘It is not just as simple as that,’ Bhearra said, stopping and turning to face Ashael. ‘Her body had stopped working, yes, but she was not yet ready to let go. I just helped her back to where she belonged. I could not have done that if it had truly been her time.’
‘Can you teach me to do what you did?’ Ashael asked.
‘I can certainly try. Not all filidh have the same skills though. Some of us are skilled healers, while others excel in divination and communion with the gods and spirits, like Ravena of Fork River Cam. As you further your training, we will discover where your skills lie.’
Beginning to walk again, Ashael looked towards the Heart-Fire and saw Rana, co-leader of the cam and her closest friend. Rana tossed a handful of berries into the flames, an offering to the gods. She turned from the fire and saw Ashael and Bhearra.
‘How is Soraya?’ she asked, frowning.
‘She and the baby are well,’ Bhearra answered. ‘The delivery was difficult. For both of them. But with some rest and care they will be fine.’
‘Thank the gods,’ said Rana, a beautiful smile breaking over her face. ‘I prepared some extra food for the evening meal. Would it be alright to take it them in a little while?’
‘I think they will be very grateful,’ Bhearra said, smiling.
‘Until then, would you like to join me for some tea?’ Rana asked, walking alongside them back to the two hollow trees that provided their homes.
‘That would be wonderful,’ Ashael said, taking her friend’s arm.
‘Indeed,’ said Bhearra.
Iwan stopped outside the door to the great hall, his heart in his throat. He had no idea why he had been summoned but it couldn’t be good. He had made light of it with his mother, trying to allay her fears, but both of them knew that sometimes slaves who were called to stand before the lord, did not return. The guard who escorted him shoved his back.
Iwan took a deep breath and then knocked at the scarred wood before him.
‘Enter.’ That was Meegrum’s voice. Perhaps the lord wasn’t there after all.
Iwan stepped into the room then stopped, staying as far away as he could without completely disobeying. The only light in the hall came from a fire burning low in the hearth, halfway along its vast expanse. A cold breeze came through the un-shuttered windows, rippling the tattered banners that hung high above them. Iwan shivered and took a step back until his heels pressed against the doors.
‘Come here, where I can see you,’ rasped a voice from the high-backed chair in front of the fire.
Dammit, the lord is here.
Iwan swallowed hard and walked forward on trembling legs. Fire-light danced across the scarred features of the man in the chair. The left side of his face had been hideously burned, the hair gone. Iwan looked at his feet. Slaves had been killed for looking at those scars too long.
‘How can I serve you, my lord?’ Iwan asked, his voice steady despite his fear.
‘Tell me, were you born here?’ the voice issuing from those scarred lips was hoarse and Iwan took a step closer to better hear.
‘No, my lord, but I was brought here as little more than a baby. My mother was amongst those you sent to prepare the keep for your return.’
‘You speak the language of this world, do you not?’ Meegrum said, stepping out of the shadows at the far side of the fire.
‘Yes, master, I do,’ Iwan admitted warily.
‘And you look like one of them,’ Meegrum sneered.
Iwan clenched his fists at this then hurriedly unclenched them before they saw his defiance. One of them! They are my people, not you. I’m proud to look like one of them! It would be bad enough if they punished him but there would be no guarantee that they wouldn’t take it out on his mother.
‘I am looking for someone,’ the Scarred One said, ‘and I want you to be my eyes. You will go to the settlement closest to here and ask for shelter for the winter. You will pretend to be one of them. You will gain their trust and you will report back to me. Do you understand?’
‘Yes, my lord. Who am I looking for?’
‘You do not need to know. Just make sure that you report back to me on a regular basis.’
‘How can I look for someone if I do not know who, my lord?’ Iwan said, anxious to even show this small resistance.
‘You will tell me everything you see and I will decide if it is of importance. Do you expect me to confide in a slave?’
‘As you wish, my lord.’ Iwan bowed low.
‘You will be ready to leave first thing in the morning. Meegrum will send for you. And just in case you have any ideas of betraying us, I’ll remind you that we will have your mother. If you try to run, if you tell them anything, if you miss one scheduled report, I will take her as my own personal slave and when I have used her in every way possible, I will kill her.’ The Scarred One’s eyes danced with vicious delight.
Iwan grew pale, and this time he could not unclench his fists.