"Call of the Dragon, Part I"
"Call of the Dragon, Part II"
"Ruins and Hopes"
"Shield Maiden" Cornell #3
"Warrior Eternal" Cornell #4
"Childhood of a Fighter"
"The Pledge" Cornell #5
"The Rock of Discontent"
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"A Tale of the Gods"
"The Miracle of Solstice Day" Cornell #6
"The Pilgrims' Trial and Faith"
XXV. Interrogation <=== / ===> XXVII. Prey
XXVI. The Rigors of New Life
“Damn flitters!” the dwarf Cuchúan muttered and tried to swat the tiny, multicolored creature scurrying over his head.
Maidoyú barely escaped the dwarf’s good hand, darted first to his right side – where his arm was still bandaged and unusable -, then rose a yard higher, out of the reach of dwarven arm plus stone axe.
Cuchúan grumbled a curse, stared at her as if his glance alone could drop her. “About time we get out of this jungle and away from these nuisances.”
Marrigan, Uttar’s companion, said weakly, “They’re pretty.”
“So?” Cuchúan asked.
“So leave them alone,” his own companion, Bladdneit, answered as strongly as she could, lying on the ground along with the other females, on make-shift blankets of twigs and leaves that they had woven together. “The only good thing in this tree-gathering, they will –“ Her face contorted in sudden pain for an instant before she subdued the ache and continued, “Let our children play with them.”
The male dwarf opened his mouth for a quick answer, then reconsidered and resigned himself to glare accusingly at Maidoyú. She hovered above him, skimmed down a few inches, just within his reach and dearly wished that she could make more than the tiny, beeping noise of this species, to taunt Cuchúan the right way.
He nearly drew his axe, but refrained from this and stomped off to the edge of the clearing in the jungle. The dwarves had started felling trees the previous day, when the first of the women – Fenice – had announced that she could go on no longer. All the females had been in labor for a while already, but now the pangs had grown so intense that Fenice could do no more than lie on the ground and ride out the waves of pain from her womb.
The males hadn’t questioned the decision much. Cai had wondered how there could be pain to keep you from walking on, pointing at Cuchúan who hadn’t allowed a mere broken arm to impede him at all. Myrddin, the wise dwarf, had silenced him with a few salient words (and then quickly retreated to Talisana’s side, basking in her satisfaction.)
Maidoyú had observed all of this from a perch on a twig above them. New relationships were developing among the dwarves. In the first day the males had stuck together, as had the females, but now the couples were starting to separate from the party. Oh, sure, the male dwarves weren’t forgetting about each other, and when push came to shove, they were liable to stick together against the females. Or were they? She hadn’t decided yet. Nor did she quite understand.
Creating two different genders – among the gods as well as animals and sapients – had been a whim, as far as she recalled. In the beginning, there was no meaning at all attached to it. Except for that which Alyssa claimed, to bring joy.
As if it had been her who had come up with the idea! She had been involved, yes, but not alone. Although, Maidoyú giggled inside, she had taken full advantage of the existence of two genders.
Still, it had taken millenia before some deity had come up with the thought of using the two genders for procreation, to increase the numbers of animals in the mortal world. Even then it had been no more than a technicality. (And one that had infuriated Alyssa for a while. “Why,” she had asked, “do you have to lessen the pure enjoyment of this? Connecting it to multiplying, that is vile!”)
What Maidoyú was seeing now put more emphasis on the genders than she had anticipated. There was a difference to being female rather than male. It wasn’t a question of quality or worth, yet it had irrevocably changed the dwarves.
Taurkémad had been right when she complained about her dwarvies no longer being the same.
It wasn’t merely the fact of new life coming that had altered them. There was more. Yet Maidoyú was only starting to understand it – much as the dwarves below her did.
“When will the others come back?” Fenice groaned, attempting to breathe easily but failing most of the time. “My Cai, he should be –“
“They’re hunting,” Cuchúan muttered, staring into the surrounding trees. A snake coiled around a branch, watching him with interest. The dwarf snarled, fingering his axe, hoping for the snake to attack. To his regret the beast had already learned to stay away from a blade. “They’re gonna be back soon, I’m sure.” He rolled his eyes, added too low for the women to hear, “I hope.”
Marrigan carefully rolled herself to her side, taking her time to arrange her hands for best comfort. “What is taking ’em so long? The tree-gathering’s full of creatures…”
“Right,” Cuchúan agreed with her immediately.
Maidoyú smiled to herself. The male wanted to be with the others, far away from the women. He hadn’t complained when Uttar had assigned him to stay with the females this time, but the expression of his face had spoken volumes.
Another facet of the new development among the dwarves. The women had grown moodier in the course of their pregnancy, they had started to ache, and neither of the males was quite willing to sympathize. Oh, they tried their best, in their grumpy ways, yet it rarely seemed to suffice.
That was probably the reason why the three others were taking so long with their hunt. It wasn’t about picking the tastiest creature of the forest, it was about staying away from the clearing.
“They’ll be here soon,” Cuchúan mumbled. Maidoyú suddenly trembled. There was a tickle inside her, as if – Was he praying? Could it be that the dwarf remembered the gods at this precarious time?
The tickle left her as soon as it had begun. She shook her head – and stopped when she felt her flight troubled by the uncommon motion. Flitters don’t shake their heads, she reminded herself.
“Cu-“ Bladdneit suddenly yelled. “Come… Here!”
The male dwarf’s head whirled about, concentrated on his companion. She was spasming, breathing harsh and labored, her lower body twitching conspicuously. Fear settled on Cuchúan’s face, he spat on the ground – then hurried to the side of his companion. The other women stared at Bladdneit, their expressions mimicking Cuchúan’s in many ways – but mostly fear that they would soon be in the same pain.
Bladdneit groaned, her breath quickening, agony showing on her face.
“I’m here,” Cuchúan muttered, took her hand. “Are you… hurting?”
“You’re damn right I am!” the female dwarf shouted, loud enough to make Cuchúan’s head jerk back. Her breath came hard and fast, the spasms in her lower regions speeding up.
Cuchúan swallowed. “Now, just think of the creatures we’ve observed, all right? They just drop their litter and –“
“Shut up!” Bladdneit cut him off. Her hands shot up, dug into his shoulders, deep enough to draw blood. “I ain’t no animal!”
No, she wasn’t. Maidoyú grew nervous, observing from enough. She knew that the child was ready to be birthed. It was already moving towards its exit from the womb and entrance into the world of the living, but the pain… It was so intense, she could feel it reverberate inside her flitter body. So could the other female dwarves; they started to spasm as well, not as much as Bladdneit, but sufficiently to make them concentrate on her own bodies.
“Help me!” Bladdneit hollered at Cuchúan. The male shrugged, helpless, while her hands clawed into his flesh. All he could do was ignore the pain and clasp her hands.
This was a sapient giving birth. Maidoyú darted aside, towards a twig, wondering what she should do. If she should do anything. There was no tickle inside her now, as if from prayer. Nothing. Bladdneit wasn’t crying out to the gods, she was asking Cuchúan for help.
I can’t stay outside, Maidoyú realized. For the sake of the children… and the mothers.
“I will help,” a strange voice intruded on Cuchúan.
The dwarf cast off his woman’s arms, drew his axe with his left hand while he was swiveling about to face the unknown foe. Then he stopped and looked up.
The newcomer was twice as tall as he was. Her skin was pink and soft, not as nice and craggy as a good dwarf’s should be. She was a woman, her shape revealed that much under the unrefined clothes she wore. Long, black hair, dark eyes, a nose that at least was jutting out like a cliff. She was carrying an amphora in one hand, mist rising from the stopper, and a pile of blankets in the other.
“Get out!” Cuchúan grumbled.
The stranger said, “Your women need help. I will give it.”
“We don’t want any help! Leave before I cut ye down to size!”
Marrigan interjected, half rising from her lair, “How would ye help?”
Cuchúan didn’t look away from the intruder, instead raised his axe, ready to swing it. “Who sent ye, stranger? The gods? We reject ‘em, listen? Now get on yer way, leave us alone!”
From her lair, Marrigan repeated her question.
The stranger looked at her. “I know how to care for the child’s birth. You are different from animals, and I can help you.”
“Go away!” Cuchúan cried, pulled his axe back. “An’ tell yer gods we don’t want ‘em.”
The stranger directed her dark eyes at him, and for a tiny moment Cuchúan’s ferocity wavered. The eyes were so warm and comforting, like dark caves. “Reject the gods all you want. They do not reject you. Let me help.”
“Let her, damn you!” Bladdneit cried from behind.
No! Cuchúan thought. This stranger was sent by the gods, and the gods had denied hope to the dwarves. He would not permit himself to fall for that same trap again. That was why he left the cave, why he departed from the cool, pleasant confines and the myriad of works he and his fellow dwarves had created.
“Lower your axe,” the stranger said and put her hand on the blade. It didn’t cut her. “So your woman and your child may live.”
He didn’t want to. They were dwarves, they needed no help.
The stranger gently pushed his axe down. Why didn’t he keep it up? Why didn’t he swing it? See how her body was cleaved by the blade, and her voice silenced?
Bladdneit cried behind him. No words, just a sound of pain and fury.
“Let me help,” the stranger repeated.
Cuchúan grunted, then stepped jerkily aside. “My axe is ready, stranger. One false word, and ye’ll feel its blade!”
“I know,” the tall woman responded gently as she walked by him towards Bladdneit.
Maidoyú was quite aware of the male dwarf’s suspicious glances when she knelt down next to Bladdneit and spread the first blanket next to her, readying a second to clean the woman and child, drenching it with hot water from the amphora.
“Are ye a goddess?” the female dwarf asked in a low voice, as much as her pain permitted her.
Maidoyú busied herself for a moment with her tasks, then looked straight at her. “Breathe regularly. Feel the contractions in your body, and let the rhythm control your breathing.”
“Are ye?!” she challenged her.
The goddess smiled. “I am the one who helps you give birth to the first new dwarf. That is all you need to know.” She paused, looked inside the dwarf’s belly at the baby. “Now push!”
The time for questions was past. Bladdneit realized that as soon as she heard the order, and the female dwarf lost herself in the rigors of childbirth.
Maidoyú herself would later wonder about this moment, how little of it she recalled. If she would concentrate, she would be able to remember every instant, being a deity, after all. Yet there was a special kind of magic to it – so much unlike the ordinary wizardry – that she would always prefer the misty recall.
Through the nebulous veil she would remember Bladdneit’s screams, her efforts, how her face darkened with the strain, how her body contorted. And then the head appeared between her legs, along with blood, the baby’s gray skin covered by slimy substance. Bladdneit pushed harder, screamed louder.
Aside, Cuchúan raised his axe, afraid that his woman was being hurt. Yet he would not strike down on Maidoyú. Perhaps he knew that she was indeed helping. Perhaps he was too shocked by the sight of a tiny dwarf exiting from his woman. Perhaps he was aware that this dwarfling was his child.
“A little more! Just a little more!” Maidoyú remembered speaking the words, and she remembered how the baby was finally free from Bladdneit, how she grasped it firmly, pulled it a bit away, how the umbilical cord trailed from the infant, and how Bladdneit spasmed again, this time in relief.
Holding the child with one hand, she picked the moist, steaming blanket to clean the slime off the child, spanking it to start its breathing. The infant coughed alive, its eyes flashed open. They were brown. And the child… was a girl. A new girl dwarf.
Her memory grew less hazy at this point when she reached out one hand and asked Cuchúan to hand her his axe. She was surprised to feel the weapon’s shaft in her fingers momentarily, without a question, without a doubt. Maidoyú raised the axe, brought it down between Bladdneit’s legs, cleanly severing the umbilical. It snapped off – enough for the moment.
“Your daughter, Cuchúan,” she said and finally looked at the male dwarf. His gray face was as immobile as a rock, but his eyes were alight with fire watching the child on Maidoyú’s arm. The babe cried. The goddess smiled, then handed it to the mother. Bladdneit gingerly took the infant, unsure how to hold her. Maidoyú softly whispered instructions to her, corrected the position of the hands, and enjoyed the smile of joy on Bladdneit’s face.
“She is the first of your new race,” Maidoyú said. “Honor her for that.”
“We… will,” Cuchúan muttered, his voice without any inflection. He sank to his knees, a smile starting to embed itself on his stony lips, and he reached out carefully to touch his daughter’s cheek.
Maidoyú rose to her feet, nodded to the other three females. “I will stay with you when your times come. Learn from what I do, and pass it on to your children and your children’s children. I will always be there for you.”
The women didn’t respond at once. Too taken were they with the sight of the newborn, and the realization that soon one just like the girl would come from their own wombs.
Finally, Marrigan looked up. “If ye’re a goddess, stranger, it don’t mean we worship ye. We’ve made our choice.”
“Which I respect,” Maidoyú nodded. “It doesn’t matter, though. I will be there for the mothers and the children.”
Marrigan squinted. “Then ye are a goddess. What’s yer name?”
“I am the one who helps. That is all.”
“Yes!” Marrigan screamed, her hands clawing around her belly. “Then start helping!”
Maidoyú couldn’t help but smile when she shifted position over to Marrigan and to help her deliver her child. (A son, in fact. She had checked inside the womb.) A new race had come.
And Maidoyú had become a new kind of goddess. A happy and satisfied one.