20 October, 101 CY
Iva wanted to scream.
Her enormous belly felt ready to burst, and the midwife kept telling her to breathe in that annoyingly patient tone one reserves for children and pregnant women giving birth. She knew, rationally, that it was intended to soothe her, and that being calm was good for the baby. But she was in a lot of pain, and the stupid breathing didn’t do anything at all for that. And that tone…
So. Gods. Damned. Annoying.
She slowly shoved her ire to the back of her mind, closed her eyes and tried the stupid breathing. The pain lessened precisely none at all, but she found she was able to focus her mind better with the cadence of her breath. It reminded her of the training sessions with her father in her youth, and the memory seemed strangely out of place. She hadn’t thought of the man in awhile, but now that she did she wondered what he would think of her right now. He’d probably laugh and tell her she was being ridiculous wondering what he thought about anything while she was giving birth to a shepherd’s son.
Oh, Orson. She was fond enough of him in her way. He was a simple man, but a hard worker, and she knew he worshiped the ground she walked on. He’d seemed surprised during their wedding feast, like he couldn’t believe his good fortune. Iva had never really understood why he felt so fortunate, but she was grateful to have such a devoted man for a husband. She almost regretted throwing him out of the room earlier, but his fretting was not helping her deal with the pain.
Interestingly, she’d become so distracted by her thoughts and memories, she’d almost forgotten about the pain. But it came crashing back as she remembered it, and her breathing reverted to ragged intakes and exhalations of the damp air. As fortune would have it, the birthing was almost over, though of course that came with the most intense pain she would ever experience in her life. Followed by the greatest fear and uncertainty.
. . .
25 October, 101 CY
Iva awoke days later and heard a quiet conversation coming from the other room, someone speaking in scared whispers. She blinked a few times to clear her bleary eyes, looking around the room and shifting to try to find a less uncomfortable position. It was a futile effort, so she set to wondering what the voices were talking about. She couldn’t remember a reason why the family would be anything but happy. She survived the birthing and she remembered that her son had, too. She had a distinct memory of holding little Henri in her arms shortly after he’d come into the world. What then, could have them speaking so? Then she remembered something else.
The baby hadn’t cried.
At first the midwife had thought Henri wasn’t breathing, but then she saw his chest rising and falling regularly, and so she’d handed the boy to his mother. Iva had offered him her breast to nurse, and he had fed for a while before stopping and falling asleep. She’d thought nothing more of it, and had drifted off to sleep herself.
Over the next few days, she had stayed in bed to recover from the birthing, and spent her waking hour holding Henri and speaking to her husband, who rarely strayed far from their bedroom. The baby boy was so quiet, so still. He never cried out, even when hungry or wet. He never made any noise or complaint, beyond a quiet grunting sound to indicate one or the other of his needs wasn’t being met.
It was unnerving.
Iva had caught the whispers before in the last few days, though she hadn’t realized it before this moment. She’d caught the word “curse” and heard the family mention Celeine’s name. The poor woman – her sister-in-law – had died from a wasting sickness contracted as the result of a freak accident several months before. Aramis Shepherd, Orson’s brother, had been inconsolable after her loss and had left the ranch, for Brindinford she thought she’d heard. It hurt her heart still to think of the young man having to deal with his loss without the support of loved ones nearby.
The house had belonged to Aramis and Celeine, but with them gone it was just sitting empty. And her father-in-law Rene had really needed someone tending this part of the ranch. So she and Orson had moved in, and her husband had taken over the duties his brother had apparently abandoned.
Iva refused to believe that her siblings-in-law’s tragedy had anything to do with Henri, but she had no idea what else it might be. Perhaps the boy was – and the thought hurt her heart – slow. She’d heard of other families with children who were just off. But that was supposed to be the result of incest or the mother not taking care of herself during pregnancy. Neither of those was true in this case. She steeled herself for the possibility and decided to try not to worry about something she could not change. Perhaps time would provide the answers. Besides, whatever the case, it would not affect her love of Henri in the slightest.
. . .
Months passed, and Henri continued his silence, never once showing any real emotional responses to the world around him. He otherwise developed as normal children do, graduating to solid foods when he had the teeth for it, learning to crawl, then to walk. He had even developed a limited vocabulary by his first birthday. This ruled out the slowness Iva had feared, but he exhibited no signs of joy or sorrow, anger or fear. Not even when injured did he cry out in infant outrage. He simply showed the wound to one of his parents and seemed to wait patiently while it was bandaged. He never really spent any time playing on his own, simply sitting quietly until it was time to eat or have his diaper changed. He would repeat the motions showed to him by his parents when they tried to engage him, but he never seemed to care whether or not he was shown any attention. When put in his crib, he would lay quietly until he eventually fell asleep.
Iva couldn’t shake the thought that while he seemed healthy, something was amiss with her beloved son. If not a curse wrought by the vengeful spirit of her dead sister-in-law, then something else was at play. Still, what was she to do? She was just a wife and mother now, and though her family had warrior roots there was nothing to fight. She was alone with no resources or contacts to investigate any unnatural causes for her son’s spiritless condition.
. . .
3 March, 103 CY
She’d almost decided that there was no resolution to be had when she heard about Aramis’s impending visit back to the ranch for the first time since he’d left two years before.