Pompocali Castle, Yorkshire, 20th December 1211
The midwife turned towards Lynessa, the Countess of Elmet, a tiny, swaddled form gently cradled in her expert arms. Her ancient face was heavily lined, as if someone had left her out in the sun for so long that her skin had shrivelled. She hobbled across to Lynessa's side, her strange, shuffling gait suggesting that her old bones pained her, though her radiant expression was at odds with her suffering. The tiny crone smiled at her, her grin toothless, as she proudly presented the product of her latest toil. "A healthy daughter, my lady," she said triumphantly.
"A girl?" Lynessa closed her eyes, but tears leaked from beneath her tightly shut eyelids. She had always known that she had another daughter to bear, another daughter to lose, but that did not make the reality of it any easier to swallow.
"Yes, my lady."
"Let me see her," she whispered. The labour had taken her strength and her voice was faint.
The old woman lowered the child into her outstretched arms, her blue-veined hands pushing aside the soft linen.
Lynessa had seen the baby's face a hundred times before, the woman's a hundred more. "Oh," she gasped, fresh tears filling her eyes. They trickled down her cheeks, mingling with the sweat which coated her skin.
"She is perfect, my lady," the wizened crone said, her voice thick with pride, as if she herself had birthed the tiny girl.
The midwife looked at her curiously, using her free hand to push a tendril of damp hair back from Lynessa's brow, her sadness seeming to disconcert her. The woman had birthed each of her seven children, but the countess knew that never before had she seen such misery in her eyes.
"I know that you must have had your heart set on a second son, my lady," the old, shrivelled creature soothed, "but the child is strong and safely delivered, and there may yet be time for you to conceive again."
"Take her away from me," Lynessa murmured, pushing her daughter into the midwife's arms.
She fell back on the thick pillows, turning her head away. Tears filled her eyes, the pain of her grief extraordinary. The crone looked at her in consternation, but passed the little girl to one of her maids. She sat down beside her, the gesture overly familiar.
"Muriel…" Lynessa began, her voice rising on a sharp warning note.
The midwife looked at her through knowing eyes. The woman had nursed the countess herself, when she had been nothing more than a newly born babe. She took Lynessa's cold hand in her wrinkled fingers. "I have seen how mortally disappointing it can be for a woman of your station to bear another daughter, but you have always found joy in your little girls before. She will be company for you as she grows older, and one day she will make an illustrious marriage to bring glory on your house. The earl has his heir, my dear, and he does not need another. He may not realise it, but what he requires is daughters, for he will need a veritable army of son-in-laws to see his ambitions fulfilled." She gently stroked Lynessa's cheek, a long-dormant wave of maternal affection warming her gimlet gaze.
The countess wanted to scream out at the injustice of it all, but for a moment, she could not help but be comforted by the midwife's familiar touch.
Lynessa's infant daughter wailed, the sound pulling at her heart strings. She turned towards the noise, craning her head to look at the child.
The baby quieted, staring at her though familiar eyes. A stab of grief tore through her. "It is not the time to talk of such matters," she choked, pulling away from Muriel.
The midwife let out an exasperated sigh, but let the matter lie. Lynessa guessed that she had seen the look in her eyes too many times before, and knew it would be pointless to argue with her now. "Your feelings will change soon enough," she said quietly, turning down the bedcovers.
The countess looked at the old woman through a haze of pain, misery and exhaustion, wishing that Muriel still had the power to fix things. But this was beyond the midwife's control; there were no words which could change the reality of Lynessa's situation. She knew that she would never draw any happiness from this daughter of hers. Too soon, she would bury this child. Too soon, she would gift the body of another beautiful young woman to the earth.
The midwife returned with the child neatly-swaddled in her arms. "Her papa will adore her," she said pointedly.
The mention of William was salt in Lynessa's wounds. He would never understand. He would hate her for it, but she refused to love another daughter only to lose her too.
"I don't want to see her anymore," Lynessa commanded. The child terrified her. Too much had been taken, and this daughter of hers had stolen still more, with more yet to be taken. She could see her last chance at salvation turning to ashes before her eyes. Her throat ached with the effort of choking back her sobs. She didn't want to see the rosebud lips that death would so soon kiss, didn't want to feel a dead thing suckling on her breast.
Muriel passed the child to Lynessa's maid, Isolde. The young woman's face was uncertain. She looked to the midwife for guidance, but the old woman shook her head, silently instructing her to ignore Lynessa. "Come, my dear, let's make you more comfortable," Muriel soothed, fluffing the pillow behind her head. The midwife turned her attentions to the feather mattress which cushioned her exhausted body, her ministrations jolting the countess' sore bones.
Lynessa could feel her mantle of control slipping. "Get out," she screamed.
Isolde looked at her with wide eyes, shocked by the vitriol in her voice. She hastily carried the child into the antechamber, cradling her against her body as if to cocoon her from her mother's wrath. But the woman could not protect her from her fate.
The child's face screwed up, and she bawled out her infant frustration, her tiny legs thrashing against the blankets, the enormous noise drowning out Lynessa's sobs.
Brunhild's brisk footsteps echoed around the stone walls as she approached the child's cradle. She peered at the screaming form dispassionately, the baby's face tightly screwed up as she wailed. Her expression softened slightly as the middle-aged woman touched one flushed cheek. "This is the little lady."
Ayleth slowly advanced, her footfall quieter than the older woman's. She moved hesitantly. As her gaunt face appeared above the child, her blue eyes stared hungrily at the tiny form. Her tentative finger brushed a tightly fisted hand, and the baby girl grasped it eagerly, her wails quieting. She felt a slow smile spread across her face.
"I think she's hungry," Brunhild suggested. "Perhaps if you were to feed her…"
Ayleth pulled her hand away, her mouth twisting. "I cannot. It is too soon."
"She needs you," Brunhild implored. "Her mother will not look at her, let alone feed her."
"Is she ill?"
"She is too distraught. I fear that she is mortally disappointed that it was not a second son, but still, it is unnatural."
Ayleth bit her lip, chewing anxiously. "She will not look at her?" Compassion welled inside of her. How could the countess reject such a beautiful, vulnerable little thing? When she had birthed her own children she had been unable to wait to hold them in her arms. The pain and the exhaustion had faded to insignificance, and all that remained was a euphoric love.
Brunhild blushed at the horror in Ayleth's voice. "Perhaps I speak too harshly of my mistress. Maybe it is just the fatigue speaking, for it was not an easy birth. This is her sixth daughter and her seventh child, and she is not a young woman anymore. It must be hard for her to have given my lord so many daughters, and only one son."
The countess' labour had been long, Ayleth silently acknowledged, and must have pushed her to the end of her endurance. She was sure she would feel differently once she was recovered. But though she tried her hardest to be compassionate, the sight of the child, so new and precious, alone and hungry in her cradle, drew impotent tears to her eyes. If only the woman understood how blessed she was to have birthed a healthy daughter… "It is not the child's fault," she murmured, gnawing her lip.
"Do not judge her too harshly. My lady has always been a good mother before," Brunhild reprimanded.
"But that doesn't help her, does it?" Ayleth mumbled, gently stroking the baby's cheek. Her soft hands reached for the infant, snatching her from the crib. She cradled the little aristocrat tightly against her own body. "What's she called?" she asked, feeling the stirrings of maternal love inside of her being fanned into an all-consuming flame.
Brunhild shrugged. "Her mother did not care to name her."
"Poor child," Ayleth said passionately. She sniffed, wiping the back of her free hand across her eyes. She looked at the tiny girl tenderly. "I will have to love you for her, my little dove," she whispered.
Half an hour later, Ayleth sat in a chair, tenderly cradling the little aristocrat in her arms. Brunhild's footsteps grew quieter. A single embrace, the space of a second, was all it had taken for Ayleth to fall in love, to grow blind to the other woman's presence. The only sound in the small antechamber was the gentle snuffling of the child, and the soft sigh of her breath as it whispered in her chest. They sang a contented melody as they murmured in her ears, of hope and life, a future - a future she would be part of, a future she wanted. The child was new and beautiful and hers.
Ayleth unpinned her gown, unlaced the drawstring of her chemise and guided the infant to her breast. "There, my sweet," she murmured. "Everything will be alright. I'm here now."
The child latched on, sucking hungrily, her small jaws working ferociously. Ayleth stroked the dark hair which covered her head with a gentle forefinger. The hands which stroked the downy curls were the same hands which had caressed her young husband, the lover she had lost mere weeks before her youngest child was delivered, a baby which was born sleeping, taken by the angels before she had ever drawn breath.
Ayleth closed her eyes, savouring the tug of the tiny aristocrat's small jaws and the comforting weight of the baby in her embrace. The little girl filled the space in her arms where her own daughter should have lain, the succour which she gifted to the mewling infant her own child's by right. In this moment, she could almost pretend that this baby was hers, truly. She would love her as her own, give her life, for she had such a power now. Not like before. Her eyes filled with tears as she remembered her little girl's tiny face, her tightly shut eyelids never to open on the world. No amount of love could wake her, nor make her want to live. But Ayleth's tears were of healing as much as they were of sorrow, for though she was still a mother without a child, here was a child without a mother. Here was one who needed her. Here was a babe to love, a daughter to cherish.
The baby's mouth fell away from her breast, and she screamed out her infant frustration. Cradling the little aristocrat's head in her hand, Ayleth guided her back to her nipple and, as she quieted, she began to hum soft, cheerful tunes, the songs of her childhood, as she suckled her, the soothing melodies gentling the infant. But she heard a haunting pain behind the rhythm of the songs, a cry of loss and bittersweet memories. They were the tunes she had whispered to her own children, the children she had lost, the two little boys who had never known their sister. They were songs of love, laced with the memory of death. The thought gave her a queer chill, for it seemed suddenly that the child's life had been bought at the price of death, one little girl having died so that another could live, two little boys having slept so that a tiny lady could awaken. Was it not true that the child had found a mother only because the mother had lost her children? But the babe was beautiful and pure and alive, and she was the only child Ayleth had left, so she pushed the thought aside.
Sated, the little aristocrat lay in Ayleth's arms, fighting the sleep which threatened to overwhelm her. She carefully laced the drawstring of her chemise, though the neck of her gown remained open, revealing a glimpse of her milk-heavy breasts. The baby girl's tiny hand lay across her chest in a gesture of possession, claiming her heart, her soul. And she knew that she would give everything to her, gladly.
The sound of the latch startled Ayleth, her eyes darting to the darkened doorway. A handsome, black-haired man walked into the room. He moved noiselessly, with a lithe, cat-like grace, his eyes fixed on the cradle. He peered into it nervously, his face growing confused as he realised that it was empty.
"Milord?" Ayleth questioned, studying the rich embroidery of his tunic.
He turned quickly, shocked by her presence, fixing her with eyes so dark that the iris was almost indiscernible from the pupil. "This is my daughter?" he asked, coming towards her.
She nodded shyly.
The lord's arms reached out to receive the child. His large hand supported the baby's tiny, fragile skull and he laid her body easily along the length of his strong forearm. The child's deep blue eyes opened, and she studied him with an owlish solemnity. His eyes filled with tears as he returned her stare. Ayleth could not help but gaze at him in open-mouthed fascination.
The lord raised his stare to hers, looking at her in confusion. "Why isn't she with the countess?"
Ayleth dropped her eyes to her feet, made uncomfortable by the question. It was not her place to criticise his wife. "I do not know, milord," she said evasively.
"Who are you?"
"My name is Ayleth, milord. I am your daughter's wet nurse."
"Lynessa never employs a wet nurse," he said. His tone was accusatory, as if Ayleth were responsible for his wife's behaviour.
She continued to look at the ground.
"Is my wife ill?" the earl pressed.
He moved closer to her, his masculine aroma engulfing her. An air of danger emanated from him. His left hand rested lightly on the semi-circle of his sword hilt, and although she knew it must be from habit, a sense of unease still assaulted her, hand in hand with an unfamiliar, thrilling fear.
Ayleth stepped back unconsciously. "No, milord, just tired. Your lady wife is recovering well."
The earl took her chin between his thumb and forefinger, raising her face to his. She could feel the strength which rested in his arm. "There is something you're not telling me."
He let her go, but took a step back, appraising her with a critical eye. Ayleth knew that she was not beautiful, though she had a soft, pretty roundness which seemed to make men want to wrap their arms around her and bury their faces in the motherly curves of her body. "You would not lie to your lord and master?" he questioned.
She shifted uncomfortably, her doe eyes peering at him from beneath her lashes.
"Tell me," the earl commanded.
Ayleth's eyes darted to his sword as she answered, her voice hesitant. "Your wife refused to feed your daughter. She did not even want to look at her, milord."
The earl looked entirely taken aback. "But Lynessa has always been a good mother."
"I am only telling you what your lady wife's maid told me," she said carefully. "Perhaps she was mistaken, milord."
A grimace crossed the earl's face. "I fear it is the work of grief," he murmured. "We lost our eldest daughter a year ago today, and Lynessa cannot seem to recover from it." His eyes were damp, a note of raw suffering in his voice. A muscle in his cheek ticked ferociously as he sought to banish the tears which threatened to overwhelm him. "She feels a terrible sense of guilt. My wife believes… " He seemed to want to say something more, but he choked on the words.
Ayleth placed a comforting hand on his arm.
"I do not know why I am telling you this," he said, shaking his head.
"I know what it is to lose a child, milord," she confided.
Their eyes met, and a look of understanding passed between them.
"What will you call her, milord?" Ayleth asked after a time, gently stroking the baby's forehead.
"Lynessa has not named her?" he questioned.
She shook her head.
The earl looked at the little girl tenderly. "I do not know. Lynessa has always named our children."
"She is going to be a great beauty," Ayleth murmured, gently stroking the child's cheek.
"Who is the most beautiful woman you can think of?" he asked, looking her up and down as if appreciating her own neat prettiness.
Ayleth flushed before his gaze, though she held his stare. "I once saw Queen Isabella, milord. Her beauty was indescribable."
"Then I will call her Isabel," he murmured, placing a gentle kiss on the child's forehead.
It was the name Ayleth had chosen for her own daughter. She looked at her new charge tenderly, desperate to take the little girl from his arms and hold her in her own. Already she felt fiercely protective of this milk child of hers.
As if sensing her need, the earl gently deposited his daughter in her arms. His eyes lingered slightly too long on her homely face, before falling to her voluptuous breasts, where Isabel rooted hungrily. His cheeks flushed slightly as he noted her awareness, bringing a wry smile to her lips.
The earl quickly raised his eyes to her face, his expression growing serious. "My wife and I are indebted to you," he said formally.
Ayleth smiled shyly, looking at the child adoringly. "I do not know what is owed," she said softly, "only what is owing, milord."