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Elana's Tale  by Elana

Chapter 16 – Who Are You?

Elana drew closer to her fire. The night, though not particularly cold, chilled her heart with loneliness. Far from any other human being, she was filled with the primal fear of the darkness, the unknown. The fire helped, a bit. She sat and stared into the leaping flames. The tongues licked at the air like dragon’s breath. Their motion, never ceasing and never the same, mesmerized her. The glowing coals at the fire’s heart shone like a gateway into another world deep inside the earth. She could watch the fire for hours. And she did each night, until her eyes would no longer stay open, so she could sink quickly into sleep without troubling thoughts.

She rubbed her lower back. All evening she had been troubled by a backache. It had come and gone all the time she was cooking her meal of fish from the pool and fresh greens gathered in the woods. Now it strengthened again for a few moments, and then eased. She thought nothing of it, until a few minutes later it sharpened again, held for a few moments, then relaxed. Labor? she wondered. It felt completely different than the contractions of her last birth, but she knew that sometimes labor could be felt first in a woman’s back. Most often it happened when the babe was turned in the womb, so its face looked toward the woman’s front, instead of back as was more usual. Sometimes the babe turned around in mid-labor, and sometimes it was born still turned face-forward.

She stood up and began to pace around the fire. Yes, there it was again. There was no mistaking the rhythm now. And her hands on her belly felt it tighten. This was it, then. Everything was as ready as she could make it, and had been for days. She felt alone, so alone. She longed for her mother, or any other woman, to be there, supporting and calming her. Resolutely she put the desire aside. Labors that started in the back were often long and difficult. She would need all her strength to make it through.

She went into her shelter and removed all her restrictive clothing, dressing herself in a loose shift. Then she walked, back and forth along the path from the shelter down to the water. She paused and squatted during contractions, finding that that felt good. She enjoyed the freedom of movement, so different from her last birth. She was amazed at what a difference it made in her ability to cope with the pain. After a while she tired of walking, and spread a blanket by the fire to lie down. She wiggled around a bit and finally found a comfortable position, curled on her left side. She was deep into the pattern of labor now, her mind going into that timeless and focused state characteristic of laboring women, where everything outside was shut out, all attention fixed on what was happening within.

The night wore on. The contractions grew stronger and stronger. Elana lay, stood, walked, knelt, moving to the promptings of her instincts. The pains continued to stab her back, like daggers. Elana knew what she needed – she had seen it done, and helped do it herself. Another person, pressing the heels of their hands firmly into her lower back during contractions, could greatly reduce the pain of this type of contraction. But no one was here to perform that service for her, so she had no choice but to endure.

Near dawn, the contractions subsided, allowing her to snatch an hour of exhausted sleep. With the sunrise they began again, waking her. She drank thirstily from the cold mountain stream, and nibbled on a bit of bread. Her strength renewed, she settled again into the hard work of labor, contraction after contraction washing over her.

The sun was high and she was catching her breath after a strong contraction when she heard hoof beats. Startled, she turned to see who could be intruding on her private refuge. She immediately recognized Silverfoot as he entered the clearing. Even as tired as she was she rejoiced at the beauty of the magnificent animal. But what could Theodred be doing here? She saw him dismount, then turn to assist – Roswyn? So her friend must have betrayed her hiding place. Elana started towards them, and then sank to her knees as a powerful contraction seized her.

Immediately they were beside her, Roswyn supporting her on one side, Theodred on the other. When the contraction had passed, they steadied her as she walked back to the fireside. When she had caught her breath, she spoke quickly, before the pain came again. “Why are you here?”

Theodred answered her. “Your family asked me to help search for you. They are terribly worried – they will be delighted to know you are safe. I came to Roswyn and asked if she knew where you were. She was reluctant to reveal your secret, but I persuaded her. I promise, if you wish to remain here, I will tell your family only that you are…” Theodred trailed off. She had turned away, closing her eyes and breathing deeply and raggedly. He felt helpless and confused. What was he doing here, intruding on her privacy? The mysteries of bringing forth new life were the domain of women, far removed from his experience. A man might be allowed to be present when his wife gave birth, if she wanted him there, and young boys often accompanied their mothers in their labors, but otherwise men were gently but firmly excluded from the secret rituals of childbearing. Theodred’s own mother had died when he was very young, and since then he had been part of the male world, full of training as a warrior and preparation for the role of leader in battle that was his destiny. Here and now he felt dreadfully out of place. The fantasy of Elana he had built in his mind was shattered, now that he was faced with her reality.

Elana held her focus as the contraction faded, then turned back to Theodred. She was surprised at how glad she was to see him. She wouldn’t have dreamed she’d want a man present when she birthed, but somehow it seemed right for him to be there. Although it did seem odd that he himself, alone, would respond to her family’s request for aid. No matter; all that could be dealt with later. At this moment, she could concentrate on only one thing.

“Thank you,” she told Theodred. “Please, don’t tell my family where I am. Not unless things have changed. But we can talk about that later. Right now,” she turned, “Roswyn, I think the baby is posterior. I’m feeling everything in my back. I think maybe some counterpressure would help…” she broke off as the pain started to grow again.

“Of course,” Roswyn responded, then quickly moved to help Elana sit and lean forward, while Roswyn knelt behind her, pressing the heel of her hand hard into Elana’s lower back. Elana almost wept for the relief the pressure gave. When the contraction passed Roswyn helped Elana to lie down, then felt her belly with practiced hands. “Yes, I think you’re right. But the head is very low down; I doubt we’d have any luck trying to turn it. Best to keep going as you have been. I don’t think it will be too much longer.” She supported Elana as she moved back to a sitting position. “Here, Theodred, you come help.” Roswyn seized the arm of the startled Theodred and dragged him over to Elana. As the next contraction began, she showed him how to apply the counterpressure. Elana could tell that his strong hands were even more effective.

“I saw where there’s a raspberry bush, Elana,” Roswyn said. “ I’m going to go make you some tea. I’ll be right back.” Leaves from the red raspberry were well known to ease pregnancy and labor – they were even given to pregnant and laboring mares. Elana was thankful for Roswyn’s help. How could she have forgotten the raspberry leaf tea? She’d brewed it herself for her mother, whose labor had gone so quickly that the steeping leaves were forgotten, until later Elana had handed Marbrona the steaming cup over the contentedly nursing baby. Elana smiled at the memory, then stiffened. The intensity of labor, her need for help, and Roswyn’s calm efficiency had momentarily driven from her mind the goal of all this activity. The baby! Roswyn couldn’t be here when the baby came! And what about Theodred? Her family had sent him – was he too now her child’s enemy?

She twisted away from him. “You can’t have her!” she cried. “She’s mine! Get away from me! They sent you to kill her!” Elana tried to run, away, anywhere, she had to get away from these two who seemed to offer help and yet were threats. But after only a few steps she faltered, seized in the grip of the strongest contraction yet. She stumbled and nearly fell, then felt Theodred’s strong arms around her, holding her up. She tried to struggle, but the pain was intensified by the tension in her body, and she screamed in pain and rage and despair.

Theodred held her close, hurting with her. When the contraction left her, draining her body of tension and leaving her limp in his arms, he turned her and looked intently in her eyes. “Elana, listen to me. No one will harm your baby. I swear it.” He didn’t think about the rashness of his promise. All that mattered was that she trust him, in this moment when fighting and trying to flee could prove disastrous to both her and her child, and that she be safe and safely delivered.

Elana read the truth of his words in his eyes. She sagged in relief, collapsing into the warm embrace of his arms, registering somewhere deep in her mind how good it felt to be held so, supported and protected by his strength. For a timeless instant they stood there, then inevitably Elana felt the pain returning. But this time it was accompanied by an involuntary bearing down, as her body began to push her child forth.

Twisting around in Theodred’s arms, Elana bent her knees in a squat, with Theodred supporting her from behind. She moaned with the force gripping her body, though in a strange sort of way it felt good. The pain was still there, but the pushing impulse was far stronger and more important, overwhelming in its urgency. Then it faded, leaving her panting.

Returning from the woods with the raspberry leaves, Roswyn had heard the commotion, abandoned her preparations and come running. Now she reached them. Smiling, she said, “That sounded like pushing to me. Do you mind if I check?” Without waiting for an answer she knelt before Elana, pushing aside her shift and feeling for the baby’s position. “Crowning already! It must have turned after all, to progress so quickly. Theodred, that’s perfect; keep holding her like that; it’s a very good position for pushing.”

Elana nodded, swept up in Roswyn’s certainty. She had time for only a few deep breaths before she felt it coming again. She squatted and bore down mightily, helpless to resist the enormous squeezing pressure. For an eternity she pushed, a burning sensation growing, until finally with a pop all the pain was gone and the contraction subsided. “The head is out!” she heard Roswyn say, and relaxed back against Theodred, closing her eyes and gathering her strength for one last effort.

Theodred, standing behind Elana and grasping her under the arms to support her body, watched in rapt wonder as the head emerged. He had never imagined anything so amazing. He was filled with awe for the creative power held within a woman’s body. He held Elana gently and firmly, trying with his touch to pour his strength into her. He felt the first tightening as the final contraction built, and looked eagerly down to witness the miracle.

Elana’s eyes were closed as she pushed, so Theodred alone saw Roswyn’s mouth set in a grim line as she reached for the baby’s head and placed her hand over its scrunched bluish-gray face, covering its mouth and pinching the tiny nostrils closed. At first Theodred didn’t understand, but as the child’s body emerged Roswyn’s hand stayed in place, preventing the first life-giving breath.

Frantically Theodred eased Elana to the ground, not wanting to drop her but desperate to get to the baby. He leapt forward, knocking Roswyn’s hand away. Roswyn screamed and fought, reaching to strike or strangle the babe, but Theodred shoved her aside, reaching out his own hands to catch the child as it slid forth from its mother’s body.

For a moment the tableau held – Elana, exhausted from her final effort, lay back panting, barely aware of what had happened. Roswyn crouched, glaring at Theodred. And Theodred knelt with the wet limp form of the child unmoving in his arms.

Then the child shuddered, gasped, and let out a ragged, coughing cry. Elana opened her eyes and struggled to sit up, reaching for her baby. Theodred would have handed the child to her, but he was stopped by Roswyn, who thrust herself between them. A knife gleamed in her hand. Elana, with a sick feeling, saw it was the same blade Roswyn had used in the battle against the orcs.

“Give it to me,” Roswyn growled in a low, thick voice. “It’s an orc, a monster, an abomination. Look at it!”

Mesmerized by the force of her passion, Theodred looked down at the squirming, naked infant. A girl, he noticed in surprise. No one could mistake her orc blood. It was there in the claws tipping her fingers and toes, the asymmetric face, the distinctly inhuman features. He felt the weight of a lifetime of fear of the goblin race. How many times had he confronted a face like that, contorted with battle rage, sword seeking his life? But this one was so weak and helpless, eyes closed tight as it wailed, cord still connecting mother and child. Revulsion battled with compassion in his heart.

Elana had fought her way to her feet, ignoring the weakness left by her long, exhausting labor. Now with the strength of panic she grabbed at the knife in Roswyn’s hand. Roswyn held on and twisted around, and they struggled to gain control of the knife. Momentarily Roswyn’s strength overpowered Elana, and the knife inched toward Elana’s throat. Theodred crouched, unable to intervene for the slippery wet body struggling in his arms, unable to move away for the cord that passed from the baby to Elana. Closer and closer to Elana the knife crept. The two women locked eyes.

Then Roswyn broke, released the knife, and collapsed, sobbing. Elana stood, bewildered, knife in her hand. She looked at it in revulsion, and then cast it away towards the woods, where it fell into the bushes. She turned toward Theodred, on the edge of collapse herself, blood pooling around her feet where her exertion had caused her to bleed far more than normal. Her eyes pleaded, and her hands ached to reach out, but she waited, knowing he must still decide.

Theodred stood transfixed by the love in Elana’s eyes. How he wished a fraction of that love might be directed at him, as well as at the baby he held. He couldn’t possibly keep her child from her, the child they had both fought to save. But still fear filled him, fear of what the child might become. Fear that by granting her deepest desire, he might be placing her in deadly danger. He looked down at the crying babe, still wet and rapidly getting cold. He drew his cloak forward and wrapped it around the girl’s body, holding her close to warm her with his own heat. She quieted and relaxed in his arms. He searched her face, seeking answers. Tell me, little one, he thought. Who are you?

The baby’s eyes opened. Great liquid golden brown eyes met Theodred’s. He felt like he would drown in their endless depths. For a long moment he stood transfixed, reading the truth of this child’s soul.

Then wordlessly, he handed the babe to Elana. Elana’s heart sang. The weight of the child felt perfect in her arms, that had been empty it seemed for an eternity. She met the child’s eyes with a shock of recognition. “My dream,” she murmured. She looked up at Theodred. “I dreamed about her,” she told him. “I saw her eyes. They were the same.” Theodred nodded in understanding. He put his arms around Elana, neither of them noticing the intimacy of the gesture, and they both stood spellbound, eyes feasting on the wonder and wisdom of the child’s gaze.

Suddenly Elana swayed, and leaned against him heavily. He turned, concerned, and saw with mounting alarm that her face was chalky white. He eased her to the ground, baby still clutched tight in her arms. He cursed as he saw blood everywhere, soaking the lower half of Elana’s garment and the ground at their feet. Helpless, he wondered wildly what he should do. He looked around, as if the answer would be written in the air, and spotted Roswyn still huddled on the ground.

He went over and grabbed her, more roughly than he really intended, and shook her. “Elana is bleeding to death! What do we do?”

Roswyn hardly seemed to hear him. She turned eyes dark with despair on him. “What have I become?” she asked. “What have they made me? I was trying to kill Elana – I would have killed her, my own friend.”

“Well, you may have killed her! She’s bleeding, and I don’t know how to stop it. Save your soul-searching for later, right now we have to do something!”

Roswyn’s eyes focused, and she seemed to absorb the meaning of Theodred’s words. She knelt swiftly by Elana, assessing the situation with a glance. “Elana, put the babe to the breast. She must nurse right away.” Elana hurried with numb, clumsy fingers to undo the neck of her shift and move the baby into position. The baby rooted eagerly, then latched on to the nipple and began to suck. Within moments Elana felt renewed painful contractions in her womb.

“Now Elana, you’ll need to push out the afterbirth. Your womb can’t close and shut off the bleeding until it’s out.” Elana nodded obediently, and concentrated briefly inward. She gave a small push, and the afterbirth slid painlessly out. Roswyn placed her hands on Elana’s belly and began to firmly massage it. Elana gasped a bit, for it was painful, but her womb responded by contracting hard. The blood slowed dramatically, and color began to return to Elana’s face.

“Ah, I think that’s done it,” Roswyn said with satisfaction. She continued the massage, reluctant to meet Elana’s eyes. “I’m afraid the cord must have gotten jerked and the afterbirth torn away from the womb, when I…” Tears streamed down her face. “Elana, can you ever forgive me?”

Elana clutched her baby protectively close, but she was also weeping. “Roswyn, I just want her to be safe. I know why you feel the way you do, but please, can’t you just leave her alone?”

“I’m sorry, Elana. I thought I was being sensible… but then I was so angry, and I hated it so much, I was willing to kill you if that’s what it took. And then it was like I came to myself, and realized what I was doing… I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want them to have made me into this bitter, hating thing….” Her tumbling words failed her emotions, and she stopped, closing her eyes and breathing deeply to regain composure. After a moment, she opened her eyes, looked squarely at the child peacefully nursing. She spoke firmly. “Elana, she is your daughter. For your sake, I promise I will not try to harm her.”

The baby paused in its sucking and turned to look at Roswyn. Elana watched as Roswyn’s face mirrored the same shock and wonder that she and Theodred had experienced at seeing the child’s eyes. Then Roswyn was sobbing and embracing Elana, and with her free arm Elana hugged her back, their tears mingling in forgiveness and healing.

Theodred watched, his throat tight with emotion. When their sobs had died away, he cleared his throat roughly and said with forced lightness, “Aren’t we supposed to cut the cord or something?”

The two women dried their eyes and turned with relief to the business of dealing with a newborn. Elana directed them to a corner of her hut, where she’d prepared string to tie the cord, and a diaper and tiny gown for the child. The cord was carefully tied in two places about an inch apart and cut between. The afterbirth was bundled in a cloth and set aside to be buried later. The baby was gently dried and dressed, then wrapped in a soft wool blanket. Mother and baby were settled comfortably next to the fire, and Roswyn and Theodred set about preparing a meal for the three adults. Though all the excitement made it feel as if days had passed, it was only early afternoon.

As they sat down to eat, Theodred asked “So Elana, what are you going to name her?”

Elana smiled at him, as she finally spoke the name she’d treasured in her heart since that first dream-glimpse of the child now warm and real in her arms. “Deore.”

The word, in the ancient language of Rohan, meant “beloved.” As Theodred observed the love that almost tangibly enveloped the mother and orc-faced baby, and thought about all the pain and sacrifice Elana had suffered, and would continue to suffer, for this child’s sake, he had to agree that no name could be more appropriate.

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