Short Fiction: “The Midwife” (Part 4)

Xaryasha could see the hesitation on the midwife’s face. He had hoped that it would not be necessary to intervene directly. He knew, none better, that there were things that no man should meddle with, and childbirth was one of them.

As the woman still did not move, he knew that the time had come to act. It was desperate, and it was terrible, but he his visions had come to him and told him this child’s future, the dark reign of terror that he would inflict upon the world. He must be destroyed.

He made to gesture toward the guards who were waiting, but suddenly the blast of trumpets shattered the night, and the very palace seemed to reverberate to their terrible notes.

“What in the name of?” he managed to ask before something enormous seemed to strike the palace, sending another shockwave that threw him to his knees. Cursing even more loudly, he got to his feet and his worst fears were instantly confirmed.

The midwife was gone.

***

            Whatever had struck the palace had thrown everything into chaos. Siska did not know what it was, but she had not waited around to see if any illumination was forthcoming. As soon as she saw the shadow of the guards making to come into the sacred birthing chamber, she had known that she had no choice but to run. If she did not, her own life and the life of the child she had pledged to save would be forfeit.

She had not been paying careful attention when she had been led to this chamber, but she thougth she had a vague idea of how to escape.

She would find out soon enough if she was wrong.

A few turns, and she was hopelessly lost.

And then she ran face-first into the last person she would have expected.

The King of Kings stood there before her in all his terrifying majesty, a figure of awe and terror. She had only ever seen him from afar as he rode through the city, and even from a distant he had seemed to shine with a blistering light, a creature so far above the likes of a midwife as to be something another type of being. Seeing him here was altogether different.

The greatest ruler in the known world was stunningly handsome, with his high forehead and sharply curved nose. His eyes were a piercing brown, but they seemed to hold a world of sadness in their depths. But what struck her most was that he seemed so utterly human. That humanity, though, did not lessen the fact that he was still a man who held t

He looked her up and down, and then his eyes came to rest on the bundle that she had clutched in her arms, a child that was so small as to almost disappear. His eyes narrowed, and she felt her heart constrict in her chest. Was this to be the end of her?

“What has happened to my wife?” he demanded, his voice cracking like a whip. “What have you done to her?”

Something seemed to have stolen her voice, and it felt as if her tongue had cleaved to the roof of her mouth. Siska desperately worked to get spit into her mouth, but to no avail. What could she tell this man? How could she tell the most powerful man in the world that his wife was dead and that she had promised that woman to take her child—and his—into the night?

She knew then that she was going to die, and she prepared herself, and with that peace her voice finally came back.

“Your wife has died,” she said. She knew that she was supposed to perform the obeisance, but for some reason she could not make her knees.

Flames seemed to leap into his eyes, but they died just as quickly, and he put his hand against the wall in order to hold himself up. She could see that something fundamental had left him, and she felt her heart break. This was a man, after all, for all that he was also a god, and she knew in that moment that he had indeed loved the woman who she had left dead in a pool of fouled blood.

“What do you wish of me?” she had the temerity to ask. “Your Shariza has asked me to take the child to safety with her father, but yours is the final word. Will you have me do this thing, or do you wish to take him under your own wing?”

When he looked at her again, it was as if he had never seen her, as if his mind was racing to figure out who she was. At last, she shook his head.

“No, I know that my reign is over.”

As if to echo his words, the palace shook again, and he sighed.

“The princes will not rest until the palace has been destroyed, and all that I have built is brought to ruin.”

He seemed lost for a moment, as if he did not know where he was or what he was doing. At last, however, he turned those eyes upon her.

“You must go,” he cried, his voice cracking.

She found that she could not move her feet.

“You must go!” he cried louder, lunging toward.

Clutching the child to her breast, Siska fled.

 

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Short Fiction: “The Midwife”–Part 3

The Dashturi Xaryasha was a patient man, but as he gazed through the pleated screen at the queen giving birth, he saw the delicate strands of his plans, laid with as much care as the finest spider silk, threatening to unravel about him. He ground his teeth in fury.

Already the gathered princes, particularly Khambujya, were growing impatient for the news to reach them that the queen had miscarried. As indeed she should have done long since. He had paid the midwife a handsome sum to make sure that the child born in the queen’s womb never saw the light of day, but she had clearly not yet found the right opportunity.

He had tried to impress upon her how very important it was that she do as instructed. More than just the life of one baby hung in the balance. The fate of the empire was tied to what happened this night, and the Dashturi was not about to sit by while all his delicately-laid plans came to ruin because some fool midwife decided to have a pang of conscience.

Or, more sinisterly, she had decided that there were other paths to pursue, and for the first time it occurred to him that there might have been others who were willing to pay for her services, others whose interests were not aligned with his own or the empire. Perhaps one of the princes had intervened?

He narrowed his eyes and waited.

***

            Siska knelt before the Queen, her mind roiling with conflicting thoughts. She knew what she had been told to do, what she had been paid to do, yet she could not quite bring herself to do it. If she did, she knew that it would be the end of the family line of the Shah that she had sworn to serve. Was she really willing to do this thing, when it meant that the holy land of Haranshar would continue to be destroyed by civil war?

Yet how could she do otherwise, when she had been told that if she did not, the king’s line would eventually result in the downfall of all that the Haransharin had worked for? Who was she, an uneducated peasant woman, to challenge the word of the empire’s highest priest?

She could sense the presence of the fire priest waiting, looming beyond the pleated curtain. He had paid her enough to make sure that she would never go hungry for the rest of her life, but still she could not quite bring herself to slay this child that was about to come out of the womb, this hope for all the dynastic claims that the King of Kings had worked so long to cultivate.

At last the birthing was finished, and she could see that at least the beginnings of the priest’s prophecy had been accurate. The child was indeed a boy, and as healthy as one could ask for. She could feel her heart fluttering in her chest like a trapped starling.

It was clear almost immediately that the Queen would not live past the night. Try as she might, Siska could not get the bleeding to stop. Something, perhaps some foul spirit, had poisoned her blood. Siska could smell something amiss.

“Promise me,” the Queen whispered, her voice choked with tears. “Promise me that you will let the baby live.”

When Siska did not respond at once, the Queen persisted.

“I know what the priest promised you. I know that he has said that you will be able to live out your life in peace, but you must know that is a monstrous lie. You must know that he will do nothing to help you and will indeed strike you down as a threat to him.”

She paused, coughing, and foul black blood speckled her lips. “I know he has done this to me, but I will not go into the great darkness without your promise.”

Siška hesitated. If she promised the Queen this, she would be sacrificing her life. She knew that Xaryasha was a danger to any who crossed him and an implacable enemy. She had heard of the sufferings of those who had gone against his wishes, of the disappearances in the night and the mysterious screams that came from his home.

She made up her mind.

Short Fiction: “The Midwife”: Part 2

The palace was imposing, and not for the first time Siska marveled at what humanity could achieve. The sheer scale of it dwarfed anything that anyone had been able to accomplish since the time of the Old Ones, and everyone knew that they had been a mix of gods and men. Confronted with the vastness of its bulk, she was aware of her own limitations, and she shuddered.

The Immortals led her through one of the many smaller gates into the palace precinct, and though she felt mildly annoyed that she was not to be given a grand entrance in the main gate—she was about to help deliver the empress of a child—she pushed down those feelings. After all, hers was a higher calling, and it was unworthy of her to think of attaining glory.

She wasn’t entirely successful.

As Siska was led through the halls of the great palace, she felt the familiar rush of awe at the wealth that she saw on display. An entire hallway was paneled in the ebony that was one of the most lucrative exports of the fiercely independent of Ashkûm. She could not imagine how much it had cost the Shah to have it brought so many miles away from the forests. Every niche in another hall was filled with the finest sculptures from the distant peninsula of Helleneia. Though they were undoubtedly uncouth barbarians, their ability to capture the vitality of the human form in the frigid lineaments of marble was unmatched.

Yet Siska knew that if the princes outside the city were to have their way, all of this would be put to the torch. All this beauty that the Shah had taken such pains to collect, the soaring heights that the human spirit could achieve, would be destroyed in the fires of civil war. The Shah’s inability to produce an heir was his greatness weakness, and it threatened to undo them all.

The only thing standing between them and that fate was one midwife and the decision that she would make.

 

She could see at once that the queen was not going to live through the night. Her face already had the pale, waxy look of death, and Siska thought it would be all she could do to save the child. She shook her head in anger and frustration. Why was it that men always thought that the life of the mother was the least important part of child-bearing? Why did they care so little for the woman who bore it?

Now that she was here, she knew that she would do everything in her power to make sure that this child was born alive, that he would survive even when the mother would not.

But, of course, that was exactly what she had been told, in no uncertain terms, not to do.

Still, in times like this, she could do nothing but what she had been trained since childhood to do. She would bring the baby into the world, and she would face the consequences of defying the wishes of one of the most powerful men in the empire.

Bracing herself, she set to work.

 

Short Fiction: “The Midwife: Part 1”

I’ve decided to be brave and start doling out a short story I’m working on in installments here on the blog. It’s set in the same universe as the “The Heretic’s War” and details the miraculous happenings surrounding the birth of Xharyush, the founder of the great empire of Haranshar. It’s titled “The Midwife.”

I hope you enjoy it. Part 2 will be released next Sunday, and for as many Sundays as it takes to finish telling the tale.

The Midwife

A pall had fallen Pasgardakh and all was quiet. Too quiet.

But then, an invading army encamped at the gates would do that to even the most bustling of cities.

The great palace of Shah Xhishmeh reared on its mighty rock above the rest of the city, a testament to the might of the King of Kings. He might be besieged like a badger in its den, but his house still announced to the world, and to the army that could see it on its rocky promontory, that here indeed was a king that could fight all the gathered princes of this world until the last breath in his body. This was a king that was the brother to the moon and stars and was second only to the sun in his radiance. This was the king of the world.

Unfortunately, he was also a childless one.

Which was why, when the cry of a mother entering her birth-pangs shattered the stillness of the night, the windows of the palace lit up with the glare of a thousand lamps, and the sounds of footsteps echoed through the empty night.

There were cries for the midwife, and two of the Shah’s own Immortals were sent to retrieve her. This woman was to hold the future of the entire realm in her hands, and thus she had to be handled with extraordinary care. After all, if this child survived the night, and if he was a boy—it must certainly be a male child, or otherwise all of this would be in vain—he would be the heir to an ailing king and the harbinger of a new future to come.

But first, he had to survive the night.

***

Siska had spent the greater part of her adulthood as a midwife. Trained by her mother, who had been trained by her mother, she came from a long line of women who had given their services to the family of the Shah. And none of them—not a one—had ever had her patient experience a miscarriage. It was a badge of pride carried by her house, a mark that suggested that they, more than anyone else, had been touched by Ormazdh. They were the ones chosen to bring the light of the sacred fire into the world.

It was therefore no surprise when she was called to the bedside of the queen who, everyone knew, had already endured a difficult pregnancy. To be called to aid this woman was the highest honor a woman like Siska could ever hope to attain, and she was not blind to it. Her people had always existed closer to the world of life and death, and she knew that she held the future of the world in her hands.

Though the usual rush of exaltation rushed through her at the thought of bringing another bright light into the world, she also could not shake a feeling of foreboding.

As she made her way through the dark streets of the city, she thought back to the fateful evening just two nights past when the Dashturi, the Shah’s foremost adviser, had come himself to her small house.

At first, she had been almost too overwhelmed to even make sense of what was happening. What would this man, this powerful man, want with someone like her? Certainly, she had delivered several babies for various nobles, but that surely did not warrant him coming here, did it?

He had been accompanied, as was only appropriate, by several Immortals, who had conducted a quick search of her home to make sure that there was no one there that would seek to do harm to the one that they had been appointed to guard.

The Dashturi was a strikingly handsome man, with his dark eyes and his glistening black hair, his sparkling white teeth and his high forehead. No one could say from whence he came, but there was no doubt that there was no one closer to the king than he was.

“You must understand the importance of what is about to happen.” When he spoke, it sounded like honey, so exquisite, so smooth, that she felt herself giving way to him, even though something about what he was saying struck her as odd.

She found herself nodded her assent, not even trusting her voice enough to say it aloud.

And then he was gone, and she was left alone.

Now here she was, making her way to the palace to deliver the child who would save the world.

Unless she did as she had been told.