Highland Warrior

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In through the door, Joshua strode directly to the bedroom where Kára held a panting Brenna around the shoulders. Kára met his gaze, and she closed her eyes briefly when he shook his head.

“She must be raised up,” Hilda called, pointing to a thick rope that had been looped through a hook above for bed curtains.

Hilda pointed at him. “You. Lift Brenna up into the ropes and help support her there.”

“Me?” he asked, his muscles tightening as if readying for battle. Wasn’t he supposed to vanish from the birthing chamber like every other male so that they did not show their weakness or see things they should not?

“You are the strongest here, and we need her up,” Hilda said. “The babe is coming finally, but it will be easier on them both that way.” She beckoned quickly to him, and he found himself walking over, inhaling fully to gain strength. But the heat and smells did not help him. ‘Tis like birthing a foal, he told himself, which he had done many times before.

He stepped up onto the bed, his boots planting behind the heavily burdened woman.

“Do not let her slip,” Kára said, letting him grasp Brenna under her arms. He had no choice but to hold her under her ample bosom.

Just like a mare in trouble. Like a horse. That is all. Done this dozens of times before. If Brenna could only neigh, he would have little problem with this. He opened his mouth to ask but decided against it. No woman that he had met responded well to being asked to neigh.

Joshua lifted and Brenna groaned, a sound torn from her straining body. Kára leaped up to loop her friend’s arms through the rope.

“She is too weak to hold on,” Kára said, looking at him. “Hold her there.”

“Hold her here?” he asked, his voice rising, but she had already jumped down to the floor, leaving him. “Through the entire foaling… birthing?”

“I see a wee foot,” Hilda called from under Brenna’s wet and bloody smock.

Joshua kept his gaze focused on the door, the place he longed to go. Nothing would make him look down at all the blood and fluids pouring from the woman. He’d rather watch entrails fall out of a man. Or maybe even his own arm cut clean off. The loss of his own blood would not make him feel more unsteady than he did at that moment.

“Brenna!” Calder yelled from the front room. He pushed the cloth separating the room aside and strode in with another man behind him, a man Joshua knew.

“Pastor John?” Joshua called from his position on the bed. The cleric’s wide-eyed gaze snapped up to meet his. “What are ye doing on Orkney?” The last he saw the young holy man, Pastor John was performing the wedding ceremony between Joshua’s brother, Cain, and Ella Sutherland back in Caithness.

He swallowed, his gaze dropping to Brenna and then back up to Joshua. “Chief Sinclair knew I was headed this way and…” He had to raise his voice to be heard over Brenna’s keening. “And uh… uh… Cain wanted me to see if you were well.” His gaze dropped again to Brenna, one hand going to his own forehead before he looked back up with wide eyes. “Are…are you well?”

Kára’s grandmother threw her arms out to stop him from answering, which was good because Joshua had no idea if he was well or not. “This is women’s work,” Harriet Flett called loudly.

“He is no woman!” Calder shouted, pointing at Joshua.

“Calder?” Brenna asked, and Joshua felt a bit of strength return to her body.

“What the hell is going on?” Calder asked.

But Joshua did not have time to answer as the lass yelled again, her body tensing with another wave of pain.

“Dearest Lord, we call upon your blessings. Bring peace and strength,” Pastor John said, closing his eyes and laying one hand on his bible.

“He is a minister,” Calder said.

“What?” Brenna yelled, the word full of sudden strength. “I am not dying! I need no holy man.” Anger seemed to give her more strength, helping her heels push into the bed under her.

“She is not dying,” Kára added, fury pinching the beautiful determination in her face.

“Not for last rites,” Calder called, dodging around Kára’s grandmother to tip his face up to Brenna’s. “Will you wed with me, Brenna Muir? Right now, before our child enters this world?”

Another contraction pulled her strength, and Joshua braced himself as her muscles contracted. A deep groan issued from her as her entire body tensed.

“Two feet now,” Hilda called. “We must work the shoulders out.”

“Aye, aye,” Brenna panted, her eyes once more opening to focus on the soon-to-be father. Calder waved Pastor John over. Poor fellow looked pale and shocked by the violent scene. Joshua did not blame him. Men were meant to take life from the world and were not meant for the horrors of bringing life into the world.

Calder glanced at the stains on the bed and Brenna’s smock, his face also going pale as his lips opened.

“’Tis like a horse birth,” Joshua called down to them both. “Think of it that way. But do not ask her to neigh.”

Everyone in the room, except Brenna, looked at Joshua as if he’d lost his mind. “It will keep ye standing to think of it that way,” he defended.

“I… I have not seen a horse birth,” Calder said.

“Well damn,” Joshua said. “Deep breaths then I guess.”

A deep groan came from Brenna, and Pastor John closed his eyes, his lips moving in silent prayer.

“Pastor,” Joshua called down. “Ye best start if your blessing is to come before the bairn.”

His eyes snapped open, and he nodded quickly like a nervous bird. “Do you, Calder Flett, take Brenna Muir, to be your wife before God and these witnesses, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, until death do you part?”

“Aye, aye,” Calder breathed.

“And do you, Brenna—”

“Aye,” she screamed. “I take him until death do us part. Aye, forsaking all others…” The last word was drawn out with her wail.

Pastor John drew the sign of the cross in the air. “You two are wed. May God bless you and your child.” Without another word, he fled the room, likely to find some whisky. Because that was exactly what Joshua was going to do when he managed to escape.

“Good girl,” Hilda said through another of Brenna’s low cries. “The shoulders…”

Brenna grunted, and her breath flew from her with the sound of… whatever it was, it sounded wet. Holy bloody hell. Joshua drew in a deep breath to keep his feet beneath him while he held her.

“I have it,” Hilda yelled, pulling out from under Brenna’s smock. She held a bloody, slippery bairn, a thick cord over its shoulders. Kára moved forward, catching the child roughly in a towel, rubbing it.

Harriet moved forward, cutting through the fleshy cord with a sharp dagger. “Lower Brenna slowly,” Hilda instructed. Thank the good lord, Joshua prayed and bent slowly forward with Brenna.

Thump. Calder was no longer standing.

“I caught his head,” Amma said as she lowered Calder to the stone floor, his eyes closed in unconsciousness.

Kára’s head was bent over the bairn, working frantically as Joshua lowered Brenna to the bed. “Come on, little boy,” Kára whispered in the suddenly quiet room. Joshua held his breath as she worked.

“Clear his mouth,” Hilda said. A weak cry came from the bairn, and Joshua released his breath. A small sob made Brenna shake, and tears washed down her cheeks, but she smiled weakly at the noise that proved her bairn had made it out of her body alive.

“There is too much blood,” Hilda said. “Kára knead her abdomen. Harriet, come look at this tear. Do we need to stitch it?”

Tear? Bloody hell! Joshua’s eyes went wide as Kára stepped over Calder, carrying the bairn that she’d wrapped in a fresh blanket. “Hold him.”

“What?” he asked.

She shoved the tiny bundle in his arms and hurried back to the bed. “Like a baby horse,” she said, a slight grin on her face as her hands went out to massage the new mother’s round abdomen.

He looked down at the blinking little eyes of the bairn. “I will scare it,” he said, but no one paid him any attention except Brenna.

“Smile at him,” she ordered.

He tried but it likely came out like a grimace. The bairn had a spit of dark hair on his head, which was wet with… He did not want to think about it. The lad’s blinks were slow, as if he was waking up or had drunk too much ale.

“I feel like I need to push again,” Brenna said.

“’Tis the placenta needing to come out.” Hilda patted her arm.

Magairlean,” he murmured, turning his back on the process behind him. He looked down at the wee bairn. His little hand laid across the blanket, his long fingers extended. Were they supposed to be long like that? He looked closer. “Och, but he has wee fingernails,” he said, pushing his thumb under the miniature hand. The bairn’s fingers curled around his thumb, and his breath caught. He chuckled. “Ye have a strong grip.”

Joshua glanced down at Calder who moved a hand to his face, his eyes blinking. “What happened?”

“Ye no doubt got your strength from your mother,” Joshua said to the bairn.