I leaned close to the woman, whose eyes could barely focus.
“Hear me, Madame. When the next pain comes, stay silent and concentrate all of your will on your belly, and push with all of your might. Push as if it were a matter of life and death, for it may well come to that. I am going back beneath the blanket, and I am going to reach inside and turn your bairn’s shoulders ever so slightly, and guide it out, but unless you do your part, my efforts will be for naught. Do you understand?”
The woman muttered something and nodded.
When the next pain came, she did as instructed and I followed my plan. It was enough to keep the queen from screaming, but it did not release the child into the world. We kept it up for another hour, and I could feel the head of the bairn.
There was some sort of commotion at the door, but the stern woman handled it.
“I told them you were delirious from the fever, Madame,” she announced. “They did not wish to check for themselves.”
The queen mumbled something in a voice that was more exasperated than weak. Then she winced and I went back into the tent, while the ladies on either side held her legs wide apart. There was a shudder and a popping sound as the womb released its captive to the world, and I caught the child as she emerged.
“It is a princess,” I announced, handing the infant to the closest of the women. As soon as the afterbirth emerged and I checked to make certain it had not fragmented to leave a part inside the body where it would become infected, my job was finished. The life of the child and the queen were in the hands of God.
I went to a basin and began to wash myself while one of the ladies began to cleanse the child. She did not unlace her blouse to suckle the child, but passed the bairn to me. The queen began to cry.
I asked the somber woman whom the others called Seton to summon the wet nurse and deliver me to the red-headed oarsman so I could escape this god-forsaken rock. I tried to pass the child to her, but she refused to take it. Then the queen called out for me to stay, and I passed her the swaddled child. She put it to her breasts, and it immediately began to suckle while the queen wept.
“What is yer name, Gude Woman?” she asked.
I told her that I was called Mariel of the Clan Fraser and that I came from north of Perth. I announced that I had accompanied Margaret Houston to the Maiden Castle when Her Majesty had been delivered of her prince, but had not been present in the birth chamber. I sensed that I was telling her a story she already knew. She said that we had friends in common in Blair. I asked her for a name, but she shook her head and smiled sadly. She seemed about to drift to sleep, and I rose to leave, but she reached out and clutched my hand. Her grip was like an iron clamp, and there was desperation in her manner.
“Leave us, Seton, Jane, all of you –just for a moment,” she rasped. Then she pulled me so near that our breaths merged.
“You must take the bairn when you leave, Mistress Fraser.”
I must have started because she pulled me even closer.
“You must,” she said. “There is no other way. If they know of her, they will kill her. Wee ones are fragile. It does not take much--a little pressure on the neck or too much force on a pillow. They will not let a child of mine and Bothwell’s live. There is no other way,” she repeated fiercely.
“But Madame,” I started to protest. Then I stopped, for what she said was true. No one knew better than I that a newborn’s life was a delicate thing. I also knew my politics. If the birth was discovered, the infant would be refuse on the rocks before the day was out. Margaret Erskine’s son the Regent Moray would never let it live. His mother’s fear of contracting plague or sweating sickness was all that had kept the child alive thus far. When I raised my downcast eyes and looked back at the queen, we were both crying. I saw her tears and tasted mine. I had made my decision. The queen was right: There was no other way.
“Take her with you and wait for word. Your coming here was no accident. I may be a prisoner, but I have friends. The boy who brought you will see to your safety. He is more formidable than he appears. He will deliver you to another village where there is a room waiting. One of my loyal supporters will have gathered up your things from the house where you have been staying. No one in Kinross can see you with the child. As soon as she is strong enough to travel, you must take her far away from here, but before that time comes, the same man who sought you out in Blair will come with money and instructions. After you read them you must burn the note. Tell no one what occurred here.”
Then she cast a wary glance beyond us.
“Can you pledge that to me, Mariel Fraser?”
My vocation involved the giving of life, not the taking of it. There was only one possible answerand I nodded my assent. The fading queen pulled me to her lips and kissed my cheek.
“Share this kiss with my daughter, woman, and treat her as your own.”
I was about to leave her presence when I realized that the newborn lacked a name.
“What shall I call her, Madame?”
“If she were mine to keep, I would call her Daisy, after the Marguerites I loved in France. Here they are yellow and mostly wild, but in the gardens of France, they are cultivated and some are blue. When I was a little girl missing my mother, they brought me a small measure of happiness. ”
I left clutching the bundle to my breast. She began sucking on my thumb. She would need breastmilk soon or she would begin to wail. I hurried from the chamber, following Seton to the stairway and stepping around the sleeping guards. Once we were outside, I asked her a question that was troubling me.
“What if the queen’s labor had lasted until morning? What would have happened after the guards awakened?”
“In this small set of rooms, woman, we put our trust in God,” she reprimanded.
When I entered the little boat, I realized how lucky I was to be leaving with my life. Fortunately we were half way across the hideous blackness of the half-frozen loch before the child began to cry. I sheltered it beneath my cloak and unlaced my bodice, which had been throbbing for release ever since the child began to breathe. The child attached itself to my leaking tit and fell asleep. I asked Willie to row harder.
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