Agata moved about her home, preparing for the night. Her back was stiff from the long day’s work. The smell of fresh bread followed every step as her soft leather shoes shuffled along her stone-tiled floor. Every step was lit with her candle.
Tomorrow, the sun would rise. However, tonight, the full moon was hidden by the deep clouds in the sky. Outside, the wind blew and rattled the leaded glass windows which she checked and latched one by one. No doubt, the servants would whisper their superstitious stories as they held each other in the night.
Even if she spent all night in prayer, she would pine for Jakub. She hoped he was alive, but feared her husband was dead. At thirty-two, Agata was still young enough to have a few more children if God would bring Jakub home.
She checked the nursery, which seemed eerily quiet. Only, Daciana still nestled in her nurse’s arms. The two were burrowed under a wool blanket and a heavy cow skin. The windows were already locked tight. In silence, Agata padded out of the nursery.
The manservant, Florin, bowed his head. “The kitchen and buttery are locked up for the night, my lady, but your son is calling.”
Agata hurried down the stairs into the hall where Artur waited.
“Lady Mother, one of the first-year heifers suffers with calving—Robert requested your guidance.”
“Yes, my son. I’m coming.” Though her back ached, she was grateful for the distraction. As it had been a day full of heavy work, she was mostly dressed for such a venture. She removed her embroidered slippers and put on heavy boots. She pulled a cloak over her everyday cotton le and woolen fata. Her maramă, which covered her coiled black hair, was plain linen.
The manservant’s hand trembled on the open door. “My Lady, it is late. Be wary of the Legatus.”
“I’ve my son to protect me, and the Count put out a perfect sacrifice. Keep the house locked uptight,” Agata said.
He inclined his head at her.
As the younger daughter of a count and the wife of a count’s younger son, Agata couldn’t be too safe when it came to money. Who knew when Jakub would return? Her own mother died in poverty, because of the taxes and tithings-owed after Agata’s father and elder brother died. With Jakub’s blessing, Agata became a learned midwife and kept a profitable dairy. She couldn’t afford to lose a cow and her calf. Her children’s inheritance were those cows. Artur and Petru were coming to the age where she would need to negotiate marriage—even if they didn’t marry right away. She hoped Jakub would be home when that happened, but she knew his wishes on the matter.
Artur held her arm; Agata shivered in the cold air. They crossed the narrow path through the herb garden where soft leaves brushed against her skirts as if to protect her from adventuring into the night. The wind changed, and
Agata inhaled the perfume of her everlasting rosemary. Her other herbs and peppers had not bloomed yet. With the great house behind her, Agata’s eyes adjusted the darkness as they picked their way across the meadow to the birthing barn. Her herdsman, Robert Robescue, waited for them.
The cow wrung her tail and tried to kick her stomach. She snorted and mooed weakly yet seemed restless.
“Shh, how’s my good girl. I’ll help you. Let us give her a bit of fresh hay. How long has she been in labor?” Agata asked.
“She wasn’t in labor after midmeal, but didn’t want to come in from the pasture tonight, Lady,” the herdsman said.
Agata removed her cloak, rolled up her sleeves, and washed her hands with cold water and potash soap. She rubbed pressed oil onto her hands and arms.
She used more oil to feel the cow’s cervix. She observed the calf’s head and a frothy mouth and nostrils, but no hooves. The calf was straight on rather than leaning to its right, worse, the cow’s water had broken.
“She is dilated, the head is in the birth canal,” Agata said.
“Will we lose her, Lady Mother?” Artur asked.
“She just needs a little help.”
“Walk slow, Artur,” Robert said. “New
mothers can be skittery.”
Agata reoiled her arm and waited for the next contraction. Once it passed, she pushed the calf into the correct position. She sang a donia to the cow and prayed. Another contraction, then another.
Two hours later, she had a healthy mother and baby.
“Robert?” she called. No response.
“Artur?” She peeked out of the stall. The men’s frames leaned against the far wall asleep, next to several buckets of water and a bar of soap.
She thought about waking them, but instead, she washed the cow as the new mother licked her baby clean. Wet, but happy in her night’s good work, she stole a moment to gaze upon her angelic son. She wouldn’t embarrass him by treating him like a boy in front of another man, but she felt a deep sadness that she would never embrace him like a boy again.
Outside, there was a low howl. A chicken squawked from the coop. The cows in the main barn brayed in protest and fear.
“It is just an animal,” Agata said, but still felt the need to cross herself.
She decided once she was back inside, she would sleep in the nursery with Daciana tonight.
Agata whispered a prayer. “Dear God, please return my husband to me. I miss him so much.” The priests said the most important thing a noblewoman could do was bear children for her husband and to produce knights for the Voivode’s army which protected their country from generations of invaders. It was her duty and honor. So she added to the prayer. “If he returns, I’m still young enough to give him another child or two. Bless me with more children.”
She shook Artur awake.
“What is it?” he asked, rubbing his eyes.
“A girl calf, my son. We’ve been fortunate tonight.”
“And the mother?” Robert yawned.
“Both are doing well.” Agata said, “It’s late. Artur, did you plan on sleeping in the house tonight or going back to the bachelor’s quarters? Robert, I can put you with the servants if you don’t want to cross town under the darkness.”
Another howl interrupted her words.
This one sounded closer. Wolves never came in this close to the walled city. She thought she heard a horse. Jakub.
Robert jumped to his feet. “Stay here, my lady.”
He was just out of sight when he bellowed. The door to the birthing barn slammed shut.
“What is it?” Artur called.
Robert shouted. Another voice added to the deafening noise. Cows howls in panic. Something hard hit the barn door. The door rattled. The entire barn trembled. She held her cross tightly and said a prayer under her breath.
Artur grabbed Agata’s wrist and pulled her behind him. He drew his short sword.
The wooden door cracked. A board was ripped off the door. A massive arm silhouetted against the night sky. Another board broke.
“Whose there? I am armed,” Artur warned.
The only answer was the door ripped away. An unseen force of wind and movement kicked up the hay. Agata could only see a huge black mass as she was thrown away from Artur. She screamed her son’s name as a battle cry filled the air. Artur shouted in return. There was a short clanging of metal. Then the sound of something fleshy hitting the barn wall, or perhaps a stall door.
Darkness was all around her. “God, help us!”
The cow bleated in panic; the calf squealed. Hay rose in the sky as the cow kicked and bucked.
Hands clamped on Agata’s shoulders. She was pushed against the wall. Her maramă was ripped from her head. Hands pulled her plaited, coiled hair. She screamed as two piercing blades ripped into her throat. She slapped, scratched, and kicked her attacker, but he only buried the blades deeper.
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