Highlander’s Hidden Foes – Emilia C. Dunbar

Ewan!” The scream was long, agonized, and desperate as the woman on the sweatdrenched bed called out for the father of her baby to come and help her in the last throes of labor. He could not give birth to the baby for her, of course, but he could hold her hands, wipe her forehead, and whisper soothing words to her. “Calm yerself, mistress,” the midwife, Bettina Ferguson, said soothingly. “Ye know men arenae allowed in the birthing chamber. Their stomachs cannae stand it. It is nearly done now an’ ye will have a bonnie wee bairn in two shakes o’ a lamb’s tail.” The woman paused in her labor for a moment, her eyes wide with fear. “Promise me, something, Bettina,” she said hoarsely, reaching out for the midwife’s hand. Bettina grasped it. “I will dae whatever I can, mistress,” she replied, frowning. “What is it?” “If it is a choice between my baby’s life or mine, choose the baby, for I do not wish to live without it. Promise me, Bettina.” Bettina was troubled. “Mistress, that isnae my choice tae make. But—” Just then, the woman screamed as another wave of pain attacked her.

The crown of the baby’s head appeared, and the midwife gave an encouraging cry. “Here it comes, mistress!” Bettina yelled excitedly. One more excruciatingly painful push delivered a wet and squirming bundle into the midwife’s hands, and she laid it tenderly down on the woman’s chest while she delivered the afterbirth. “Is it a girl or a boy?” the new mother asked anxiously. “A bonnie wee maid,” said Bettina, grinning from ear to ear. Just then, the little scrap of humanity began to send up a heartrending wail that sounded as if she was being subjected to excruciating pain. The mother gasped with shock. “What is wrong with her?” Her voice was full of fear as she stared at her frantically screaming daughter. The midwife chuckled as she cut and tied the cord. “They a’ sound like that, mistress.

If ye were pulled out o’ a nice, warm, dark place intae a cold bright room, an’ yer poor wee eyes had never seen the light o’ day before, ye would scream too.” The woman smiled while Bettina gently took the infant away from her mother and cleaned her, while the baby kept up its heartbreaking cacophony. The mother felt such an overwhelming love for the little girl that her whole body tingled with it. How had she managed to produce this tiny, screaming person who had been part of her body until a few moments ago, and was now a new life? It was a miracle! When Bettina brought the baby back a few minutes later, she placed her on her mother’s breast and guided her mouth to the nipple. The screaming stopped as if by magic and was replaced by a greedy, gobbling, sucking sound that made the mother giggle. “Have ye thought o’ a name yet?” Bettina asked. “Not yet, but one will come to me and her father. We will decide between us.” Bettina smiled. “When ye work in my position, mistress, ye get tae know the meaning o’ every name ever created.

” She paused in her task of cleaning up the mess that had been left over from the birth. The woman was bleeding heavily, and Bettina suspected that the afterbirth, instead of sliding out of the womb as nature intended, had torn away a piece of flesh with it, causing a great loss of blood and threatening the new mother’s life. The woman was already turning white as the blood trickled out of her body and soaked the sheets underneath her limp form. “Ewan!” she cried. “Ewan! Where are you?” “Bettina, where is he? He must see his child.” Bettina looked meaningfully at her assistant Mary and shook her head so imperceptibly that the mother could not see. “Find her father,” she whispered grimly. “An’ get the priest!” Mary nodded and left. “Where is my Ewan?” the woman asked, panicked. “I want him to see his daughter!” “And he will, mistress,” Bettina said soothingly.

“I have sent Mary tae find him. Ye must not disturb yerself. All will be well. Lie back an’ let me take care o’ ye.” The woman’s lips were turning blue, and her eyelids were beginning to flutter closed, but still, she would not give up the fight. As Bettina took the baby from her breast, she put up a feeble show of resistance, but her strength had run out. A moment later, her arms flopped to her sides as she closed her eyes for the last time. Her breathing became ragged, and the time between each mouthful of air became longer, until finally there was no more breath at all, and the young mother passed peacefully away. Bettina crossed herself, then kissed the sweating forehead of her young patient. Sadly, she saw a lot of births like this one, but at least this baby had survived and looked healthy and strong.

Presently a tall man wearing a hood came in. When he took it off he midwife saw his deep brown eyes that almost looked black. He took one glance at the woman on the blood-soaked bed, but he showed no emotion. His face might have been carved in stone as he took in the sight of the young mother, her face now marble-white, and the screaming young baby. “Take yer daughter, sir,” the midwife said gently. “I will send for a lady I know who will be happy to be yer wet-nurse.” “Thank you,” Ewan said. His deep voice was flat and without feeling. “I will let her have her first few feeds, then arrange a wet-nurse of my own. Has she been given a name?” “No, sir,” Bettina answered.

The man’s indifference scared her. “Then I will name her,” the man replied. “I will arrange for a funeral to take place tomorrow if you will summon some women to lay her mother out.” He nodded once, dropped some coins into Bettina’s hand, he put his hood up again and went for his horse. Mary and Bettina exchanged astonished glances. “If I didnae know better,” Bettina growled, “I would swear he was Satan himself.” “An’ I would agree,” Mary said grimly. F 1 enella had been reading the same page in her book over and over again for most of the afternoon, but her thoughts were constantly drifting away to the single subject that was uppermost in her mind. At the age of eighteen, she had expected to be married, but as a laird’s daughter, the choice would never be hers. Still, she consoled herself, even though her father was a rather remote figure who was not generous with his affection, he had never been cruel to her in any way that she could put her finger on.

Indeed, she hardly ever saw him or her mother. He had married her sisters off when they were only sixteen to the sons of local lairds, thereby ensuring that he had alliances with several local clans, which made them all more secure and less vulnerable to hostile clans or the English troops who still prowled the area. None of them had come to any harm, and while their respective unions could not have been called love matches, her sisters seemed reasonably content on the few occasions when she saw them. Fenella wondered why it had taken her father so long to betroth her to an eligible young laird or laird’s son, since she was two full years older than her sisters had been when they wed. Still, she was not complaining. She had always dreamed of marrying for love, as she was sure many young women did, but that was the only privilege reserved for poor people. They could choose their spouses, but the upper classes could not—at least not in her family. Some fathers allowed their daughters a choice between three or four eligible young men, or even older men, but her father reserved the right to choose for Fenella, and he would never take such a liberal attitude. Fenella shook her head and tried to concentrate again, and she succeeded for a while, but her attention wandered anew, so she stretched then went over to the window to look outside. It was late afternoon at the end of September, and the trees had donned their autumn coats of scarlet and gold, which glowed brightly against the emerald green grass on the hillside.

In Fenella’s opinion, it was the loveliest time of year. The days were becoming shorter and the nights longer. Soon the brutal Highland winter would be upon them. It was a time when the world rested, the crops having been reaped and new seeds planted, sleeping underground awaiting spring, when they would awaken and bear fruit again. Plowing had ceased, and broken farm tools were repaired, keeping the blacksmith and carpenters busy from dawn to dusk. Animals were slaughtered in winter, and then their meat was smoked, salted, and dried to preserve it. Vegetables and fish were pickled in jars of brine, and grain was ground into flour for bread. Nevertheless, it was a time of rest from the relentless toil of working on the land, a chance for people and Mother Nature to renew them. On the hillside, the black-faced sheep were fat with winter wool coats, their skinny black legs, which did not look strong enough to support them, sticking out comically underneath them. They always looked so strange that they made Fenella laugh, and now she giggled as she looked at them.

In some ways, she felt envious of their freedom to roam where they pleased before they were housed in warm barns for winter before the spring lambing. Fenella loved autumn and winter. In the village of Craigstone, over which McLeod Castle stood like a stern sentinel, she could see candles and fires being lit up in the cottages. This was the time when families were gathering together over their evening meal, sitting around the hearth, and likely chatting about the events of the day and swapping scandals and gossip. Even in a small village, there was plenty of that! Children would be playing, and mothers would be feeding their newborns, then they would settle down to sleep, cozy and secure. How she envied them the simplicity of their humble lives! She sat on her bed again and resumed her reading. The book was a romance, and was as far removed from a rich girl’s or even a poor girl’s life as the earth was from the moon. Still, it was an escape from the boredom of a laird’s daughter’s ordinary life of sewing and solitude, since she had no friends. Her father and mother did not entertain, she had no brothers or sisters who lived near her, and eligible young men were not beating a path to her door. Fenella told herself not to complain; she should be counting her blessings.

She had a family, even though it was not a loving one. She had a roof over her head, clothes on her back, and she would never have to worry about where her next meal was coming from, even though her meals were small and usually eaten alone. Suddenly there was a sharp rapping at the door. “Who is it?” Fenella called. “It’s Father,” the laird replied. “Are you dressed?” “Yes.” Her heart began to hammer, because Laird McLeod did not visit her in her chamber unless it was a matter of dire importance. She went to the door and opened it wide, and then her father strode in, barely glancing at her as he sat down in a chair next to the fire without asking for her leave. She sat down opposite him, her hands trembling. What was he going to say? The laird sat for a moment gazing into the fire as if preparing himself, and then he looked her in the eyes and said in his usually blunt fashion, “You are to be married.

” Fenella gasped. There was no doubt in her mind that she wanted to marry, if only to escape from her solitary life, but now that the moment had come, she was stunned. However, she smiled and tried to look enthusiastic. “Who is he?” she asked curiously.

.

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