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Bryn was watching wearily, and smiling. Suddenly Claire stepped forward without thinking, toward the baby that Alys was wrapping now in a cloth, and cried out, “Don’t take it from her!”

Alys frowned. “Take what? What’s troubling you, girl?”

“Give Bryn her baby!”

Alys looked puzzled. She leaned forward and placed the swaddled infant in Bryn’s arms. “And what did you think I was to do, child? Put it out for the wolves? Of course it goes to its mum. Look there. Wee as she is, she knows what to do.”

Like the lamb wobbling forward to suckle, Bryn’s baby turned its head against its mother’s warm skin and its mouth opened, searching. Claire stared at it. Then she began to sob, and stumbled out of the cottage into the dawn. Behind her, Alys, her face folded into puzzlement and concern, began to replace her birthing tools into the woven bag. The new mother dozed while her tiny daughter nuzzled and sucked. Outside, in the distance, the little girls were moving about in the gradually lightening meadow, their arms filled with flowers. But for Claire, who stood on the path weeping, the sunrise, perhaps all sunrises to come, was ruined by memory and loss.


Haltingly, pausing to weep, Claire told her remembered story to Alys. Astonished, the old woman asked to examine her scar. Her gnarled hands touched the raised pink flesh and followed the map of it with one finger.

“Aye,” she said, “this is what I saw the day you came, and I knew you’d had a terrible wound. But never did I see until now that it’s the size to remove a child. Imagine: to cut a woman like that! Or a girl! You was just a girl! The pain would have been so fierce. It would have killed you.”

“No,” Claire explained. “I felt nothing when they cut. Before, there was pain—like what Bryn had, with the squeezing of the baby. But when they cut, I felt only pressure. The pushing of the knife. No pain.”

Alys shook her head as if in disbelief. “How could that be, then?”

“There were special medicines. Drugs. They took away pain.”

“White willow brings relief,” Alys murmured. “But not for cutting! We have no herbs for that.”

“I felt nothing.”

“And what of the blood?” Alys again touched the scar. Her finger, its knuckle bent and thickened by age, ran the length of the wound. “I’ve seen wounds like this. A fisherman caught and ripped apart by the gaff. A hunter clawed and torn open by an animal. I’ve been called to tend them. But I can do nought but to soothe and comfort. The blood pulses away and they die from it—from the blood and the pain. They scream from the pain and then weaken as the blood flows. Their eyes die first.” The old woman’s own eyes seemed to look into the distance, thinking of the terrible things she had seen and could not heal.

Claire looked down, herself, at the scar. “I couldn’t see. My eyes were covered.” She shuddered a bit, as the memory of the mask came to her. “But I felt them cut. And you’re right: of course there must have been blood. They had tools, I think, to deal with that. I remember a small sound—”

She thought, and then tried to reproduce it. “Zzzzt! And I smelled a burning smell. I think it . . .”

Alys, puzzled, waited for her to continue.

Claire sighed. “They had something that we don’t have here. Electricity. It’s hard to explain. I think they had an electric tool that burned and sealed the blood vessels. Zzzzt. Zzzzt.”

Alys nodded, as if it made sense to her. “I burn a wound, sometimes, or a snakebite. I use a firestick. To kill the poison. Not for bleeding, though. Not for a huge wound like this one.”

Claire drew her clothing across the scar, covering it, and the two of them sat together in silence, one with her new and troubling memories, the other puzzling over what had happened to the girl, and why.

“I must find him,” Claire whispered, finally.

“Aye. You must.”


Alys stayed silent.

She told Bryn. Watching the woman hold and tend her infant one afternoon, Claire confided in her and described the return of the memories. Bryn listened with shock and sorrow. She clutched her own baby tighter as Claire answered her horrified questions. Neither of them was aware that just outside the cottage, beside the door that had been left partly open for fresh autumn air, the little girls, wide-eyed, were listening.

They scampered away to tell others. “A terrible secret,” Bethan called it, enjoying the attention she received as she retold the embellished story. Water Claire had had a baby! Yes, young as she was! No, no husband at all. And they took the baby from her—just stole it away, and she never saw it since!

The secret was murmured throughout the community. Older women lowered their eyes in sympathy; many of them had lost children in cruel ways and they knew what strong, lasting grief came with such a loss. Younger ones, jealous of the pretty stranger, tossed their heads in judgment. No husband! Wanton thing! We suspected something like that! So she was tossed out of where she lived!

Glenys, who had welcomed Claire’s attentions at the handfasting ceremony in early summer, now smoothed her skirt smugly over her newly rounded belly. “I’ll have Alys come to midwife me when my time comes,” she said with a toss of her head, “but I don’t want her.”

Tall Andras, his face set in hard lines, turned away when he saw her.

“Is something wrong?” Claire asked him, puzzled by his cold look. He had always been so friendly.

“Is it true, what they say?”

“Who? And what is it they’re saying?”

“Everyone. That you’ve had a child. And no husband.”

Claire stared at him. The knowledge was still so new to her that it seemed secret. She had yet to think it all through. It was still fragments, some of it, though from describing it to Alys she remembered the birth now, clearly and with horror. But child? She had no sense, yet, of a child. Only something small and newly birthed.

“It was different, where I lived. There weren’t weddings. And yes, I gave birth.” She found herself speaking tersely to him. She was angered. “You can’t understand. I was selected to give birth. It was an honor. I was called Birthmother.”

He raised his chin and looked at her with a kind of contempt. “You live here, now. And you’re stained.”

“Stained? What are you talking about?”

“Women who couple in the field, like animals. They have a stain to them. No one wants them, after.”

Oh. Now she understood what he meant. She had watched the sheep mating. Einar had had to explain it to her, how it created the lambs. He had laughed, finding it strange that she knew nothing of the process.

“That has nothing to do with me,” she told Andras defiantly.

“Or with me,” he said coldly. He turned his back and resumed his stacking of wood. Claire watched for a moment, then continued striding on, but her morning was tainted by the encounter. Later, troubled, she told Alys of it while they were having lunch.

“It’s the way here,” Alys explained. “Foolish, mayhap. But it has always been so. Girls must come to the Handfasting untouched, or pretend to be. Otherwise . . .”

“Otherwise no one wants them?”

Alys shrugged, and chuckled. “People learn to overlook. Sounds to me as if Andras was hopeful to have you. He’ll overlook, with time, if you don’t remind him.”

“Hmmppph.” Claire stood. She fed a piece of spinach to Yellow-wing, who hopped happily back and forth on his perch. Then she scraped the leavings from the plates into the bucket. “I don’t care about Andras. And I never wish to wed. You didn’t,” she pointed out.

Alys grinned. “I was a willful girl,” she said.


“Some said wild.” Now Alys laughed aloud. “And wanton.”

Claire found that the laughter was making her own anger subside. Looking at Alys, wrinkled and bent, it was hard to imagine her as a willful, wild girl. But in the unrestrained laughter Claire could hear a hint of the carefree creature she must once have been.

The children, curious about what seemed a mystery (for people spoke of it in whispers) but too young to judge her, were open with their questions to Claire. They were on the beach, gathering driftwood to dry for the fireplace. The wind was sharp and snapped at Claire’s skirt.

“Did it grow in your belly, like my mum’s?” Bethan asked.

Claire nodded, resigned to their knowing. She added a bent stick to the pile.

“Were it a boy?” Delwyth’s eyes were wide.

Claire nodded again. “Yes,” she said. “A male.” She startled herself. Why had she called it that? Everyone knew a baby was either a girl, like Bethan’s new sister, or a wee boy. Why had she said that odd word, male, as if she had given birth to a creature of woods or fields?

“Where did it go, then, your male?” Solemn little Eira looked worried. “Who took it?”

Claire smiled to reassure the child. “Someone else needed it,” she explained. “Just as your mum needs these pieces of wood! Let’s drag that big one over here and see if we’re strong enough to break it, shall we?”

“I’m strong!”

“Look at me, how strong I am!”

“As strong as a boy! As a male!”

The children strutted and shouted as they ran about in the wet sand. Claire glanced toward the high bank that bordered the beach and saw Einar watching. He balanced a wooden yoke across his wide shoulders, and two buckets hung level from either side. He was coming from the spring where he got fresh water. With his shoulders bearing the weight, he was able still to use his walking sticks. Now, seeing her watching, he lifted one hand and waved to her.

Claire waved back, and smiled. So, she thought, there’s one young man who doesn’t think me stained. Or is it that I’m now ruined, as he is?

She watched him make his way along the path, his feet dragging, one after the other. Beside her, in the sand, the laughing children imitated Einar, dragging their feet and limping dramatically, and then watching the furrowed ruts they made fill with seawater and smooth over.


Winter descended suddenly, with bone-chilling cold. The damp, raw wind swept in from the ocean and entered through cracks in the walls of the hut. It made the fire flicker and hiss. Claire wore a thick furred vest that Alys has stitched for her from an animal hide, and warm boots from the same hide, laced with sinew.

She accompanied Alys one morning to Bryn’s cottage, where the baby girl, now named Elen, was swaddled in layers of woven cloth and warmed in her cradle by wrapped stones made hot in the fire. Alys chuckled after listening to the shrill cry of the infant. “Summer babies fare better,” she told Bryn. “But this one sounds to be strong.”

Bryn poured tea into thick mugs. Outside the wind blew, and on the floor near the fire little Bethan, humming tunelessly, sorted acorns into families. Claire excused herself and slipped away.

Outside, she wrapped her shawl tightly over the fur vest and pulled her thick knitted hat down to protect her ears. She started up the hill, following the deserted path as it wound among the wind-tossed trees. No one was about. The cold weather was keeping people indoors. But perhaps, she thought, Einar would be in the meadow, tending his creatures, and would welcome her company. Climbing, she held her mittened hands to her mouth and breathed into them for warmth. Her feet slipped now and then on mud frozen to ice.


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