FORTRESS OF LONGUEVILLE, NORMANDY, SPRING 1197
Isabelle de Clare, Countess of Leinster and Striguil, wife to King Richard's Marshal, was in labour with their fourth child.
"Arse first," announced the midwife, wiping her hands on a length of towel after examining her patient. "Bound to be a boy, they always cause the most trouble."
Isabelle closed her eyes and reclined against the piled bolsters. Throughout the morning the contractions had become steadily more frequent and painful. Her women had unbraided her hair so there would be no bindings about her person to tie the baby in the womb, and the thick, wheat-gold strands spilled over shoulders and engorged breasts to touch her mounded belly.
"He" was already late. Her husband had hoped to greet his new offspring before setting out to war ten days ago, but instead had had to bid Isabelle farewell with a kiss at arm's length, her pregnant belly like a mountain between them. It was May now. If she survived bearing this child and he lived through the summer's campaign, they would see each other in the autumn. For now, he was somewhere deep in the Beauvaisis with his sovereign, and she was wishing she was anywhere but this stuffy chamber undergoing the ordeal of childbirth.
A contraction started low in her spine and tightened across her womb. Pain bloomed through her lower body, causing her
to gasp and clench her fists.
"Always hurts more when they come tail first." The midwife looked shrewdly at Isabelle. "It's not your first; you know what to expect, but infants that enter the world by their backsides have a dangerous passage. Head comes last and that's not good for the babe. Best pray to the blessed Saint Margaret for her help." She indicated the painted wooden image standing on a coffer at the bedside surrounded by a glow of votive candles.
"I have been praying to her every day since I knew I was with child," Isabelle said irritably, not adding that the overdue birth of a baby in the breech position was hardly a happy reward for her devotion. She was coming to abhor the statue. Whoever had carved it had put a sanctimonious expression on its face that fell little short of a smirk.
The next contraction wrung her in its grip and with it the urge to push. The midwife signalled to the girl assisting her and busied herself between Isabelle's thighs. "You should summon your chaplain to christen the child, immediately," she announced, her voice muffled by the raised sheet. "Do you have a name?"
"Gilbert for a boy, and Isabelle for a girl," Isabelle gritted through her teeth as she bore down. The contraction receded. Slumping against the bolsters she panted at one of her women to fetch Father Walter and have him wait in the antechamber.
The next pain seized her, then the next and the next, fierce and hard, no respite now as her body strove to expel the baby from her womb. She sobbed and grunted with effort, tendons cording her throat, her hands gripping those of her attendants hard enough to leave lasting weals on their flesh.
There was a sudden gush of wet heat between her thighs and the midwife groped. "Ah," she said with satisfaction. "I was right, it is a boy. Ha-ha, fine pair of hammers on him too! Let's see if we can keep him alive to have use of them, eh? Push again, my lady. Not so fast, not so fast. Go gently now."
Isabelle bit her lip and struggled not to push as hard as her instincts dictated. Taking the baby's ankles, tugging gently, the midwife drew his torso up and on to Isabelle's abdomen. As the mouth and nose emerged from the birth canal she wiped them clear of blood and mucus, then, watching intently, controlled the emergence of the rest of the head with a gentle hand.
Propped on her elbows, Isabelle stared at the baby lying upon her body like a drowned, shipwrecked sailor. His colour was greyish-blue and he wasn't moving. Panic shot through her. "Holy Saint Margaret, is he…?"
The woman lifted the baby by his ankles, swung him gently, and applied a sharp tap to his buttocks, then again. A shudder rippled through him, his little chest expanded, and a wail of protest met the air, uncertain at first, but gathering momentum and infusing his body with a flush of life-giving pink.
Righting him, the midwife turned to Isabelle, a smile deepening the creases in her wrinkled cheeks. "Just needed a bit of persuading," she said. "Best have the priest name him though, to be on the safe side." She wrapped him in a warm towel and placed him in Isabelle's arms.
The cord having been cut and the afterbirth expelled and taken away for burial, Isabelle gazed into the birth-crumpled features of her newborn son and, still deeply anxious, watched his shallow breathing. A baffled, slightly quizzical frown puckered his brows. His fists were tightly clenched as if to fight the world into which he had been so brutally initiated. "Gilbert," she said softly. "I wonder what your father is going to make of you." She blew softly against his cheek and gave him her forefinger around which to curl his miniature hand. After a moment, she lifted her gaze from the baby and fixed it on her chamber window and the arch of soft blue sky it framed. Her own ordeal was almost over and, God willing, if she did not take the childbed fever, she would soon be on her feet. Saint Margaret could be thanked with an offering and packed away in her coffer again until needed again. Now she would concentrate on prayers for her husband's safety and ask God to bring him home in one piece to greet their new son.