Mother screeched in pain as she gripped my hand. The blood dripped on the soaked floor, splashing the midwife’s skirts. I hummed and pushed my healing will through my hand into hers as the ravens taught us, but she blocked it.
“No, Fionnuala, my special child,” Mother’s voice was raw but firm. “You must stay… stay and guard the children.”
The dank dimness of the round room closed in on me as she screamed again. The rough flesh of her throat had little power left after two days of labor. Heat and sweat battled in that small space and the urge to flee was almost irresistible. Yet I couldn’t leave. Mother needed me.
Another scream raked my ears, the wattle and daub walls and the very air around us. The pain and regret of a lifetime echoed in that scream.
Her hand grew flaccid in my own. My eyes grew misty as her life force escaped and faded into the Otherworld.
In my grief, the room faded into a cloud of pain. The candlelight fled, and I heard a strangled keening sound which ululated in a haunting rhythm. Belatedly, I recognized my own voice, wordless in its sorrow.
Despite my wails, I heard a small voice lifted to join my cries. The cry of a child. No, not just one. There were two squalling infants. Mother had given us twins with her last dying breath.
My cry cut off into a wretched sob and a hiccup of hysterical laughter. In the end, she won one last victory. My mother, the shining one. Aobh Bán, delight of my father’s eyes. She of the pale skin and white-blond hair, famed for her splendor and grace. Oh, how I ached for her to be alive again. My throat closed, and my eyes soon followed suit.
Our nanny, Saoirse, bundled the children and made small clucking noises with her tongue as the midwife cleaned Mother. No one else was allowed in the birth room. Father should be downstairs, still drunk. My brother Aed should be asleep as the night grew deep. I searched in my mind for my teacher, my anam cara, my raven, Hawlen. A drowsy answer came with a flutter of wings.
I stood and stared at what had been my mother. Her body was drained of color, pale as the full moon. There remained no spark of life, and yet, I lifted my hand to her cheek. It was warm, and I shivered.
How could the gods have taken her from me now? I was but ten winters old, still a child, barely ready to embark on the wonders of womanhood. I needed her now. Aed remained eight and the babies… how would they thrive without their mother?
Flashes of memory burned in my swollen eyes. Mother rocking me on her lap when I skinned my knees, brushing my hair and arranging it in complex braids for a formal dinner. Wiping tears from my eyes after a fight with Aed. She wasn’t there to wipe these tears away
The midwife put her hand on my shoulder, and I spun. She backed up with a sad nod, full of understanding and resolve.
“Fionnuala, go. It must be you who tells your father.”
“Why must it be me? You’re the midwife. It should be part of your service!”
The woman said nothing. She didn’t need to. I was simply a child, but I was a royal daughter and understood my duty.
Hawlen arrived and landed on my shoulder. She squawked. “I shall be with you, Fionnuala, let’s go.”
With a deep breath, I squared my shoulders, determined to deliver the news to my father.