It happened at midnight.
I was awake, shivering in the corner of the cave, when the first contraction hit me.
I hissed, dropping a hand to the curve of my stomach.
It’s just a cramp, I half-begged.
Instead of fading, the pain intensified.
Soon, it was bad enough that I couldn’t stay seated. I struggled to my feet and leaned against the cave wall as the pain grew brighter, piercing through my abdomen, burning lower.
I was in trouble here, and Darvin was gone.
I closed my eyes and thought of him out there in the snow.
Be safe, Darvin, I prayed.
My lover hadn’t wanted to leave me, but the air was frigid even here, at the back of the cave. The night only promised to get colder. He’d gone seeking the makings of a fire. We had already given up hope of food.
The screaming of the wind outside was clearly audible. The gale penetrated my hiding place, tugging at my skirts.
A second contraction — a full one — rolled through me.
This was unfair! I wasn’t due for weeks. Darvin and I had planned on being in the Golden City by the time our child came.
We’d have been married back in Carville if the Father — our town priest and my adoptive guardian — hadn’t set himself against us.
I hadn’t understood, at the time, that he was planning to sell me to the most affluent man in the village.
Maybe heaven had guarded us. Darvin and I had picked the correct night for our escape. We had been slipping out the back window at the exact moment Grackul had been banging on the front door.
We’d been travelling for months since then, my condition and our limited resources forcing frequent pauses. Several times, Darvin had worked for weeks before we had the money to go on.
Now, we were nearing the final pass. The Golden City lay on the other side of the mountain.
If my child had stayed put, we’d have been there in a week.
Apparently my daughter — I was certain of her gender, although I couldn’t have said how — was stubborn.
I could only hope that her father would make it back in time to hold her.
Four hours later, my prayer had not been answered. The contractions were minutes apart, and the urge to push intensified with every moment.
I was bleeding a lot. I no longer cared about heat or food or even myself. I just wanted someone to hold my hand. I wanted someone to catch my child when she left my body.
She’d be safer if I laid down, but the frigid rock was simply too much for me to endure, so I crouched against the wall, trembling, wishing for my village’s traditional birthing stool.
When I felt a hand fall on my shoulder, I thought it was Darvin. I turned with a smile of welcome and instead found a woman with night-dark hair and eyes that sparked with lightning.
I recognised her at once. All the mountain people knew the Lady of Gale and Thunder. She ruled the mountains.
Most in Kenjorda worshipped the Great Goddess. It was her temple that sat just outside the entrance to the Golden City. My folk acknowledged other powers — some might call them lower-case gods — and we were careful to respect them, myself especially. I had always been a mountain child, fleet and as nimble as a mountain goat.
I would have knelt if I could.
“My Lady…” I stammered.
“Hush,” she said. “I will see your babe born safely. You’ll be holding her when her father returns.”
I sobbed then, relieved and terrified.
To my amazement, the Lady dropped her hand to my lower back and began to massage the muscles there.
“Are you cold?” she asked.
I nodded, whimpering.
Warmth filled the space around me.
“Let’s see,” the Lady said, “what else…?” Then, “Look over your shoulder.”
I peered around, then gasped. A rocky shelf had appeared, topped with blankets and pillows. Beyond it was a beautiful birthing chair made of white wood. Above, hanging down from the roof, was a bracing rope.
The goddess wrapped a warm cloak around my shoulders.
“Now, you need only say where you need to be, and I will help you get there.”
I had questions, but I no longer cared to ask them. I had prayed for help, and help had arrived. I would be a fool not to grasp it.
“I…” I managed. “Thank you.”
“Of course,” she said. “Now, relax. Breathe. We will do this together.”
She remained with me for the next half hour, pressing against my back when I stood and clasping my hand when I squatted on the birthing chair.
“Do you remember how you came to live with Father Dalbin?” She asked me in a pause between contractions.
I blinked, surprised she knew the name of the man I’d once respected as a father.
“I was too young.”
“Yes,” the Lady said. “You were barely two.”
“He took me in when my mother abandoned me. I was lost. It was Winter.”
The Lady stiffened. “Did Dalbin tell you anything about the woman who “abandoned you”?”
I shivered. I didn’t particularly appreciate remembering that part. “He said she was wicked. She left me to die.” I gulped. “That’s part of why I want to be a mother so much. I want to give my child all the love I didn’t get.”
There was another pause before the goddess said, “And you will.”
The hours flew by like minutes and lingered like centuries. Finally, I felt a rush of blood. I heard my child’s first cry.
The Lady of Gales pressed my daughter into my arms.
I smelled blood and infant hair and smiled.
“Thank you for helping me,” I whispered.
“It was an honour,” the goddess said, “to help you birth my first granddaughter.”
Kristina Bray is an author of fiction, novels and poetry. She lives in Sussex, England. Kristina has been publishing since the age of fourteen and has won awards for both poetry and short fiction. Kristina’s work has appeared in magazines including The Supplement, Rubies in the Darkness, Quantum Leap, Metverse Muse and Eternity. Her short story, “Melinoe’s Halloween” appeared in the anthology Beyond the Grave by Monnath Books in October 2021. Her story “How to Be A Good Wife” was published on the Night Shift Radio Podcast website in October 2022. She has publications upcoming on Graveyardzine.com and I Become the Beast (Australia).