Ariya Belba came into the world howling Death, and so did her child.
The midwives had come prepared to their little cottage in the woods: they’d stuffed their ears with cotton and had scented themselves with rose water to protect their very souls. Their birthing clothes -simple brown skirts and tunics, as not to show a mess of blood- had been washed in it too, just in case. Audyn Runa wasn’t going to take chances with a birth like this.
“Don’t take the cotton out till it’s fully quiet,” Audyn had caution her apprentices Merey and Brida. “I’ve been Midwive to this before: you’ll be at Lady Rielat’s bone gates knockin’ before the first note goes to second and a measure is done.” Both Merey and Brida had nodded their understanding and slipped into apron and gloves: if lucky, there’s be no death tonight, just birth and bathing and a bouncing babe that maybe wouldn’t sing Death.
Yet as with all well-wishing, there’s always something that went wrong: an apron was ruined, the mother fainted, the babe didn’t cry enough, a roll of bandage wasn’t there.
Or there was Death: Audreyn knew that was a fact unavoided, regardless of what passed from Mother to Child.
In the midst of birth, that last fact had been all but forgotten: Ariya’s child was coming quick, and there was coaxing and chanting to do to bring forth life.
Ariya hadn’t meant to make a sound during: she’d wanted to clench her lips and bite back the pain of giving birth. But as her babe shifted, dropping low and pressing into the world, Ariya had screamed, and the girls understood the cotton as soon as a murder of crows fell thumping to the ground outside, souls shocked from their bodies. Ariya couldn’t help that birth hurt: it was just part of being human. Yet she bit her lips raw, swallowing ever note that might have even hinted at Death.
Then at last, a wriggling babe came into the world finally shaped, with a slicked down, curling sweep of silver hair and eyes the color the fog the rested high in the Shatterglass Maw.
Everyone held their breath, then sighed, exhaustion seeping out of all four women in the room. Now, they could rest: the babe was breathing fine, nostrils and throat clear of fluids. They could finish up and be on their way.
“Well, now that’s quiet, ain’t it?” Merey said. Brida nodded, brow slick with sweat from working, and muttered a reply. Mindessly, Merey reached up and tucked a bit of hair behind her ear, working out a puff of cotton. It fell into her palm, pink from the rose water, and a good deal damp from sweat.
The babe’s lips split and a giggle tumbled out, and Merey cooed, letting her voice lift up a bit in a nursery song as Brida and Audyn worked behind her. Then the weight of being born bore down on the babe, and the giggles turned to a high scream that seemed to split itself in dissonate harmony: shock as mother passed on song to daughter.
“Merey!” It was too late: the babe’s high note had struck Merey’s ears and she slumped to the ground, black eyes flat as she gave one final exhale. Ariya let out a whimper as the rest of her birth came forth in a great gush, right as Merey’s head knocked on the rough wood floor.
“Is she-” Brida whispered.
“Yes, child, she’s dead,” Audyn said, cutting in. This was the second time to witness such a thing: she’d seen Sonatya -Ariya’s mother- through the same and remembered the moment when the other apprentice with her had fallen just like this, taking cotton from her ears despite being warned beforehand. Brida had thankfully kept hers in, but she was weeping now, sharp, shattered sounds echoing around the room.
“Spirits and Stars,” Ariya panted. “I’m so sorry, Audyn. I-“
“Hush now and breath,” Audreyn whispered, amber eyes cast down. She exhaled, and turned to Brida. “Go find the undertaker. We’d have needed him anyways: he keeps the babe books and records. Fetch him quick, and tell him he’ll need his crew. You don’t have to mention Merey just yet.” Brida sobbed a bit harder, and then shucked off her apron, plucking up a clean one.
“I… I…”Brida sobs renewed, and she shook. Audyn had to help her into the apron.
Across the room, Ariya was beginning to shift, pale eyes wide with her own fear. “Audyn, I… I…”
“Brida, get. You’re scarin’ her. Go do what I asked of you: I will do the rites. Nothing will stop that, don’t you mind,” Audyn comforted. Brida nodded, and left them and Merey’s unfortunate corpse behind, the door clicking shut softly. “Now, now, Ariya, you just focus on laying there and maybe nippin’ a nap while I’m busy.”
Ariya whimpered again, but gave no protest.
The babe would be cleaned as all children in this realm were: first in warm water to unstick the blood and fluids tacked to their skin. Next, in a warm bath of honeyed milk and daffodil petals for keen milk teeth for a teat and a fresh beginning to new life. Finally came the cool bath of rose water: ironic that a babe who could coo death should go into something to protect her from it.
Audyn went about her tasks in quiet, never taking out her cotton. The babe made few noises other than pleased coos. They especially liked the rose water bath, it seemed, though Audyn questioned if she was passing on her own feelings.
Soon, babe and Mother were together again: Ariya cradled her child cautiously, and though she wanted to hum, she would withhold, waiting until Audyn was far from their little haven in the woods.
Audyn came back in suddenly, with a small book in hand: blue fabric, stretched across board, with neat, unlined paper sewn in, marked for dates. It would serve as the babe’s record book. The midwife pulled a stylus from her pocket, and tilted: the ink reservoir inside opened, and she begin to write?
“What name will the babe bear?” Audyn asked, voice steady despite the situation. Midwives -especially witching Midwives- saw plenty of death. She was only rattled because Merey’s death had been quite the bit of waste.
Ariya paused for a moment, then looked down at her child: the midnight babe cooed and Ariya couldn’t help her smile. “Threnodi,” Ariya whispered, running her hands through the babe’s hair. It was silver as the moon, as all the Belba women were from birth.
“Threnodi, for she too will sing only of Death.”