Anjaleene – The River King’s Daughter (tentative title)
by Allynn Riggs
“Read it again, Seda.” Lacer’s voice rumbled gently. He studied the basket’s tight weave wondering if he could locate the source – a decent profit could be made on such fine workmanship. The style was vaguely familiar and it irritated him that he couldn’t place where he’d seen the style before, though he knew it was long ago perhaps before he became a merchant.
His housekeeper read the note “‘My name is Anjaleene. Please protect me.’ That’s all it says, Lacer.” The woman shook her head and read the note aloud a third time, tasting the vaguely familiar name and finding it pleasing, “My name is Anjaleene. Please protect me.” Heart pounding she unpinned the scrap of parchment from the baby’s wrap and handed it to her master. “What would you have me do, Lacer?” She asked though she knew how she wanted him to answer; the name triggering long buried childhood memories of the fabled elemental gods and their struggles. Adjusting the wrap to better show the baby’s face and to keep her hands from shaking, Seda waited for his decision.
Lacer fingered the parchment, trying to discern its origin; it was very fine and expensive but there was not enough to show a maker’s mark. He brought the oil lantern closer, to better study the script. Whoever had written it was well educated if the elegant turnings were any indication; he filed that observation with the basket style for later research.
“An unusual name,” he mused. “Have you heard it before?”
The housekeeper hesitated before answering, she would not lie. “When I was a girl my family traveled in the north. I heard many stories of the fairies and elemental gods. I believe the name comes from several of those stories; I can’t remember which ones though something about protection comes to mind. Perhaps the mother thought she was safeguarding her baby by giving her that name.” She added as an afterthought, “It is rare for a child to be named after the gods.”
Leaning over the basket still wet from the river he lifted a corner of the plain brown cloth that covered the girl child. “So, little one, who wants you protected; and from what or who? And why do you float to my boat and disturb my household so late this night?” The baby squawked at the cool air crossing her tummy. Her skin was light brown with a reddish tint; her hair would be very dark, probably black and straight. He stroked a finger along her cheek. She turned towards it, mouth working. He chuckled. “Hungry are you? Well, let’s see what we can do about that. Seda, which of my wives is still nursing?”
The housekeeper ran the list through her head and offered the most logical option. “Shaddia’s boy is almost ready to wean.”
Lacer shook his head. “Best to let Shaddia rest, I’ll find a nurse.” He smiled as the baby sucked on his knuckle. He’d always wanted a daughter though five of his six wives had blessed him with a dozen sons so far and Niat was due to bear her first within the next moon cycle. The witch had promised it too would be male. Though he was the envy of his peers, he quietly considered the possibility of switching this girl for his thirteenth son. Her umbilical cord was still attached though it had been tied off close. She couldn’t be more than two days old.
He could not imagine a mother trusting her new born to the river’s temper. She must have extraordinary reasons. The note gave the only clue – the child was in danger and someone, presumably her mother, pleaded protection. Perhaps the mother was the one in danger and the child an innocent pawn, a not unheard of circumstance. Lacer smile ruefully; with so many children on his ship, one more would be no imposition. He just had to find a nurse.
He considered Niat, a pretty girl from the Upstere Island Chain. They had been married just over a year. Her mother had born only girls and the father had been delighted to rid himself of one to a husband so wealthy. Lacer had hoped by wedding a girl with so many sisters he’d finally have a daughter, but the witch had sadly told him another boy would share Lacer’s vast merchant kingdom. And now, Niat was near her time and the river gods had sent him the daughter he’d dreamed of.
“What of Niat?” He kept his eyes on the child, away from his housekeeper’s knowing look.
Seda watched the tall well-muscled man caress the baby’s cheek. She knew he hoped Niat would bear a girl, but also would cherish any child, thirteenth son or first daughter. “She’s not due for several more weeks, but she’s so large she could come any day. You should talk to her if you want her to nurse this river god’s child.”
“I’ll speak to her in the morning. In the mean time, heat up some goats milk and I’ll see if she’ll take a bottle.” He replaced the covering but kept his knuckle in the baby’s mouth. His other hand stroked the thick blackish hair that covered the head, a wistful smile on his lips.
Seda nodded as she left, the child would stay, the river gods had chosen well, though she knew Lacer would not turn out any child. Patting her pocket she felt the necklace that had been around the baby’s neck. She’d removed it before presenting the child. It contained a powerful symbol that few would have recognized this far south and might help identify the child’s mother; if she were alive. Seda knew the danger of keeping this knowledge from Lacer but she reasoned it would be safer if only she knew of it. Besides, the northern legends were too old to be believed and this baby was no goddess. Perhaps it was the mother’s hope to influence the child’s finder, though it was now unnecessary as Lacer had accepted the child into the ship’s family – as Seda hoped. Besides, everyone knew a child of the river gods was a good omen and even Lacer couldn’t deny a good omen.
She shooed the dogs away from the door; they followed her to the goat pen floating on the near side of Lacer’s home ship.
Niat pressed her hand against her lower back easing the rhythmic ache. She continued to pace around her bed worrying about the child she carried. He was so large and pushed and jabbed at all hours. She’d awakened to a baby’s cry not too long ago but the mother had evidently hushed it, so Niat did not go in search of who might need assistance. She had been trained in herbal remedies but was not yet considered a witch. Her training, though incomplete, had been a boon to her father in the marriage negotiations but she knew he really had wanted to lessen the number of girls in his household; it hadn’t mattered to him which one Lacer had chosen. But it had mattered to Niat. She’d dreamed of this man since becoming a woman – though she’d told no one.
She smiled at the memory of their first look. She’d risen from the curtsy as his hand had lifted her chin to look at her. Their eyes had locked, blue to blue, breaths coming shallow and with difficulty. He’d smiled and her heart had melted. “This one.” He’d said, his voice deep and sincere. “How do you answer?” her father had asked. “This one,” was all she could whisper. Yes, he was the one in her dreams. He was exactly the one.
The negotiations had taken place in front of her, a very unusual occurrence, though Lacer had demanded she be present so she would know her worth to him. He had explained that a river merchant bride should understand every contract in case her husband drowned. Her father had only cared about the handsome bride-price for his fifth daughter, though he had halfheartedly tried to interest Lacer in either of his oldest two. Lacer had held her hand firmly while simply glancing at her sisters. “No, but I might consider returning.” Niat heard the merchant voice in her new husband and understood he would do no such thing. They had shared a smile. She was his. They had been sealed later that day and she was whisked off to the river with only her wedding chest and an embrace from her mother.
Niat sighed. The air about her seemed stifling; perhaps a walk would settle the baby. She tied back her waist length black hair and slipped on her robe. Lacer would probably be in his office on the other side of the ship. She needed to speak with him about their child. She rubbed her back again before opening the door.
The crisp late night air sparked movement from her son. She patted him, “Please settle, Little One. Your mother needs her sleep now, so she can play with you once you’re out.” She brushed thoughts of the impending birth away. She calmly reminded herself that her mother gave birth almost as frequently and as easily as the goats. She should expect to have the same experience – she hoped. But the size of the child worried her and the witch’s parting words from her last examine had done nothing to calm Niat. She worked her way around the stern of the ship, one hand on the walls of the deck top storage rooms.
A bleating from the goats caught her attention. She moved to the railing. “Hey Ho, there.” She called softly, “You’ll wake more than your master.” A shadow milled amongst the herd on the platform. Niat ducked awkwardly below the rail and moved to an observation portal for a closer look. Who was it?
“Hey Ho, there.” The shadow answered, “It is only Seda, Niat.”
Niat stood again, relieved. “It is late to be with the goats, Seda. What is wrong?”
Seda had moved to the plank that allowed access between the goat pen and the main ship, “Nothing, Mistress. One of the servants is ill and I thought some warm milk might ease her stomach.”
Niat reached out to help the head housekeeper onto the deck, “Do you need any herbs? I can get some menthal.”
Seda took the offered hand and made the large step before turning to close the ship side gate. “I’d like to try the milk first, Mistress. What are you doing up so late?” She studied the very pregnant young woman in the half light of the rising double moons.
“The babe moves about too much and is too big. I am uncomfortable all the time, Seda. My training had not progressed so far to include birthing difficulties. I thought to discuss this with Lacer, if he was up.” They both knew Lacer had a tendency to work during the very late night hours, particularly with the spring fairs approaching.
“Aye, he’s up to no good, that man is.” Seda smiled. “I’ll let him know you wish to speak with him. Now, you return to your room. Keep the windows open. I’ll bring you some of the milk and you both can get some sleep.” She stroked the bulge in Niat’s abdomen. An arm, perhaps, stretched itself to her touch. Seda watched Niat wince. “Aye, you should not be out, you’ll give birth before your time.”
“It would be a pleasure to have this child in my hands instead of my belly, Seda. He may be the only child I have at this rate. Lacer wont look at me again if I have stretch scars the rest of my life.” She didn’t divulge her concerns further as water gushed out between her legs and splashed on the deck. “Oh, Seda.” She grabbed the railing as her back muscles wrenched.
Seda quickly placed the milk bucket on top of the storage shelves and began massaging Niat’s lower back with her fist. A tight sigh slipped through the younger woman’s teeth followed by a deep full breath.
“Aye, Mistress, you’ll be birthing on the morrow. I’ll send for the witch and tell Lacer. Let me help you to your room.” Seda took her elbow and they began to walk. The dogs quietly trailed the pair.
Turning her head to look at the abandoned bucket Niat asked, “What about the milk?”
“Don’t worry yourself about that,” Her hand free hand waved in dismissal. “I’ll get it to where it belongs. You have a more important job.”
They reached Niat’s room, the dogs taking up places on either side of the door as if ordered to. Seda smiled. They were well trained when they wanted to be. “Good boys.” Their tails thumped the wood plank wall. Seda maneuvered Niat inside and helped her change into a birthing gown. No further contractions stopped their quiet conversation. Seda figured it would be close to dawn before the real work began. “Keep walking, Mistress. It will be a long night I think. Better drink some water, it wouldn’t do for you to be dehydrated.” She patted Lacer’s sixth wife on the hand, “I’ll make my milk delivery and inform Lacer of his son’s impending arrival.”
Nodding in compliance, Niat pumped water from the ship’s holding tank and sipped from her porcelain cup. “Mother told me to expect a long labor for my first. I’ve a few herbs prepared to ease the pain if the witch doesn’t come soon enough.” Hesitantly she continued, “Are you sure Lacer will be happy with me if this is truly another son?”
With a short gaff and a dismissive hand wave, Seda answered, “After a year you still don’t know your husband or the rest of us. All children are cherished. Now start walking.” The housekeeper closed the door and Niat settled into a steady pace around the room.
Seda knocked on Lacer’s office door. A scrambling of feet and drawers closing were followed by an overly nonchalant response from him allowed her entrance. She covered her mouth to hide the smile and smother the laugh at seeing the wealthiest man on the river leaning cock-eyed over his desk; papers strewn helter-skelter, a quill poised upside down in his one visible hand. Where was the baby and why was he leaning so close to the desk top? He always sat straight when writing – though the quill certainly was not ready for that exercise.
“Gods, woman, you could have announced yourself as any other normal person.”
She closed the door, sliding the bar lock into place and placed the milk bucket on a small table. Pulling a bottle, funnel and rubber nipple out of her skirt pocket she asked, “And how are you supposed to write your entries with the quill like that and in the wrong hand?” She began filling the bottle.
Lacer dropped the quill, “I…I…”
“Where’s Anjaleene?” Seda dismissed the stuttering with a hidden smile.
“Here, in the drawer.”
Milk missed the funnel splashing across the table. “The drawer?” she almost shouted. “What’s she doing in the drawer?”
“Well, I wasn’t sure who was at the door so I put her…some place safe…”
“In the drawer?” Seda couldn’t hold back the laughter now.
Lacer grinned sheepishly.
“And why are you so bent over?” She could imagine all sorts of reasons.
“She’s still sucking my finger,” he admitted.
“Oh,” Seda slipped the nipple over the bottle and handed it to her employer. “Here, try this instead.”
Lifting Anjaleene gently from the stack of papers that partially filled the drawer, Lacer wedged the nipple into the corner of her mouth and tried to pull out his finger. She clamped her lips tight, refusing the warm milk. Ocean blue eyes glared indignantly from under a frowning brow.
“Hey Ho, there, Little One, not interested in the artificial nipple are you? My, what blue eyes you have, as blue as the Fairy Sea.” Lacer chuckled.
Seda leaned over the desk and was caught by the ‘knowing’ gaze of those incredibly blue eyes. Perhaps the legend was true; she sucked in a breath, swallowing the desire to tell Lacer the child could indeed be from the Fairy Sea, far, far to the north where fairy legends ruled along side the elemental gods.
Lacer tried to wiggle the nipple between her lips again. She just stared at him, blue eyes shining with determination. He sighed and set the bottle aside. “She’ll take it when she gets hungry enough.” He ruffled her hair. “She’s a mind of her own already.”
“Lacer?” Seda interrupted.
“Yes.” Lacer responded without looking from the child, he tickled her tummy, she wriggled but made no sound.
“Niat’s in labor.”
“All right, did you send for the…” Lacer hesitated then turned a quizzical eye to Seda. “What did you say?”
“Niat’s in labor, her waters broke while I spoke to her after I got the goats milk. I took her to her room.”
“Why didn’t you say so when you first entered? I thought the witch said she wouldn’t deliver until after the spring equinox.”He wrapped the baby in one of his shirts and shoved the bundle into Seda’s arms, “She’s early. That’s a sign of trouble isn’t it?”
“Usually a woman’s first child is late but each one is different. There is no exact science when it comes to birthing.” She winced as he caught her elbow and pushed her to the door.
“Did you send for the witch?”
“Yes, I woke Jenner when I got the bottle. He should be there soon.” She shook off the grip on her elbow. “Lacer, there’s plenty of time. You’re acting as if this were your first not your thirteenth.”
“Sorry, Seda.” Closing the office door behind them he urged her down the side of the ship to the living quarters, “It’s Niat’s first and I will be there as I have been for each of my son’s births. This is no different.”
“Except that it’s too early.”
Lacer passed Seda as he lengthened his stride.
The dogs moved away from the door at Lacer’s approach, he mumbled something in approval; they wagged their tails and sat off to one side to await instructions. Lacer knocked on Niat’s door, “Niatina?” There was no answer to his nickname for her. He lifted the latch and pushed open the door, “Niat?” They entered an apparently empty room.
Both scanned the room worriedly.
“Niat?” Lacer raised his voice, thinking she’d taken a walk while she waited for the witch. He moved back towards the door, intent on searching the ship for her.
“Lacer?” a faint cry came from the far side of the bed. A hand grabbed the blankets at the edge in a tight fist, pulling them off.
He ran across the room. Seda followed close behind still clutching the shirt wrapped infant.
Kneeling beside his sixth wife Lacer pushed the bed further away from the wall. Seda placed the baby on the bed and pulled towels off the shelf outside the internal latrine. She saw the blood on the floor between Niat’s legs. She shook her head, too much blood, too early in the labor.
“Breathe slower, you’ll hyperventilate.” Lacer’s instructions brought a brief smile to the panting Niat.
She took a deep breath, letting it out slowly, “I must apologize, husband. I should be….” a quick suck of air followed by more panting interrupted her.
Lacer snatched a pillow from the bed and placed it beneath her head. “You should be doing exactly this, my love.” He scrutinized the blood pool and shared a worried look with Seda, who shrugged but remained silent.
Niat grabbed his wrist as another contraction tightened her belly. She blew forcefully out, trying not to push. As the contraction eased she whispered, “I can’t stop another one. I must push.”
Lacer nodded and moved to kneel between her legs. The next contraction came swiftly, Niat inhaled and shut her eyes as she concentrated on moving the baby out into the world. The head crowned, showing black hair.
“Good. Keep pushing, Love.” He’d attended a dozen births so far and each one had been a source of wonder to him. He was amazed at the strength each of his wives had shown, Niat was no different.
She pushed again. The entire head exited and rotated properly and the shoulders followed. Niat exhaled and quickly took another breath. The body slid out into Lacer’s hands.
“I thought…Niat, this is a girl!” the jubilation in Lacer’s announcement caught both women by surprise.
“A girl?” both said simultaneously.
“Yes.” Lacer checked to make sure. She was perfectly formed. “But…”
“But what?” panic colored Niat’s voice.
“She’s not breathing.” Lacer rubbed the infant’s back then turned her over and worked his finger into the tiny mouth, pulling out mucus. Still she did not cry or move. He stood up, cradling his daughter, tears welling.
“Here, let me try.” Seda stretched out her arms.
Ignoring the housekeeper, Lacer placed her on the bed and rubbed her body vigorously, whispering prayers to the river gods. Seda’s hands and prayers joined his.
“What’s wrong?” Niat struggled to sit up as another milder contraction tightened. The after-birth arrived. She felt movement deep in her pelvis, “Lacer!”
“We’re working on her, Niatina.” Lacer’s voice shook as his hands massaged the unresponsive body.
“Twins.” It was all she got out as a violent contraction caused her to scream.
Lacer turned back to his wife, “Twins? The witch didn’t say anything about twins, only that you’d have a boy. Perhaps she is too old to be a witch anymore.”
Niat didn’t answer as she stopped fighting the contraction and took a deep breath to push again.
Lacer snatched a towel from the pile on the bed and wrapped up the girl’s after-birth sack placing it next to the motionless body. Wiping tears away, he knelt again.
Niat gasped for air.
From the corner of his eye, Lacer watched Seda continue rubbing the still form of his daughter, tears ran freely down her cheeks. A second head crowned and rotated. “Again, Niat, push again.” He encouraged her.
She nodded and shut her eyes, bearing down. The body slid into Lacer’s embrace. He turned the child. “A boy!”
The infant squeaked weakly. Lacer fingered out mucus from his mouth and patted him firmly on the back. The squeak became a squall of indignation. Lacer smiled.
Niat reached for him. Handing his thirteenth son to his mother, Lacer again grabbed a towel to catch the second after-birth.
“Master?” Seda’s request was a whisper.
Still holding his son’s bloody towel Lacer stood and looked where Seda’s shaking hand pointed.
The forgotten infant from the river held the hand of the stillborn girl. Anjaleene’s deep blue eyes stared intently at the unmoving child. A single tear fell. She continued to hold fast to the hand as her head turned to gaze directly at Lacer. They stared at each other, knowing.
Incredulous, Seda watched the moment of decision. How did the river gods know what would happen tonight of all nights? Truly this was a miracle; if Lacer chose what was being offered.
“Lacer?” Niat struggled again to sit up, her son wriggling in her arms, “What of the girl?”
The merchant decided the river gods had a plan and this tragedy had been part of it. Anjaleene had disturbed his ship this night for a reason – the river gods had known his daughter would not live and had offered him one of their own. He nodded in acceptance. Placing the boy’s afterbirth on the bed, he gently kissed his deceased child on the forehead, whispering a prayer of thanks to the river gods. Wiping his hands across the afterbirth of his daughter he anointed Anjaleene’s body with blood as he lifted her from the shirt “Seda was successful, she’s breathing now. Let me finish drying our daughter for you.” Staring into the depths of her eyes all knowing and understanding, he watched a second tear fall. He gently lifted it off her cheek and sucked the salty moisture from his finger along with the blood of his daughter. A first-born-daughter for a god-given daughter; the merchant in him sealed the trade with blood and he could not, would not break his heart-felt oath to protect this Anjaleene. Hadn’t he considered switching this girl for his son? He stroked her cheek again, she turned toward his finger, mouth working – a hungry infant again.
Lacer turned his head to see Seda smiling. She nodded in acceptance of fate then gathered the lifeless form gently in Lacer’s shirt and wrapped more towels around it, “You are blessed by the river gods; twice over; another son and now, finally, a fine daughter. Have you considered names?”
Raising his eyebrow in surprise Lacer did not miss the connection to the river gods. He said, “We had not yet discussed any, however, I think Niat should name our son.”
Niat’s head showed above the edge of the bed as she maneuvered to sit on the mattress. “Ketemainta,” Niat said, “There was an old man from the north in my father’s service by that name, He was loyal to my family and treated me as a friend; not just another of his employer’s daughters. We had many thought provoking conversations.” She smiled as she raised her son to her shoulder. “I asked him once the meaning of his name. He said it had two similar meanings; forever friend was the most frequent but it also meant Loyal Brother-Friend. I think it would be a good name for our son as he will have to watch over his sister, after such a tenuous beginning. I hope there will be a similar friendship between them not just the twin bond.”
The merchant stared at his housekeeper, what better name for a brother who was not a brother. Niat interrupted his train of thought, “What name would you chose for your daughter, Lacer?”
His eyes shifted from his housekeeper to the baby in his arms. They stared at each other. He whispered, “I name you Anjaleene.”
Seda tightened her grip on the dead child hidden amongst the towels. Either she’d given her life so the river gods’ daughter would have a home or the river gods had known Lacer’s daughter would not survive birth and had gifted him with a miracle. Seda silently blessed the river gods who had made this miracle happen, which ever way it was meant to be.
Niat smiled at her husband, “A beautiful name. What is its meaning?”
Shaking his head he thought he lied to his wife for the first time, “I heard it many years ago while sailing on a distant sea. I don’t know the exact meaning, something about protection I think. It was unique and unexpected, as is the daughter you have birthed. I will treasure that gift, Niatina, make no mistake. The river gods know you gave me a daughter and if they see me as a fit father for this one perhaps we will be blessed with more.” He gently placed Anjaleene in her mother’s arm. The baby turned to the breast Niat offered her and began to nurse. Lacer let his tears fall freely. Niat had given him his first daughter and she’d been sacrificed for some reason to protect the river gods’ child. This Anjaleene must be a very special child for this to occur; he would not refuse the replacement nor the responsibility that came with that acceptance. He knew he would love her as his own. Lacer turned to face Seda and indicated the bundle of towels, “Take care of those, please. I’ll wait here for the witch. She will have to bless the twins and deal with the afterbirths.”
Seda bowed to the couple and backed out of the room holding tight to the bundle. She closed the door and walked to the plank that connected the ship to the goat pen. The dogs left their post at the door and followed - heads and tails hanging. Laying the dead child on the planking she removed the necklace from her pocket.
“The river gods and destiny have chosen you,” she rubbed the necklace across the baby’s chest; the necklace glowing in the moons’ light, “as they chose Anjaleene to arrive at the time of your birth. You are most blessed, little one.” A large pod of dolphins appeared on the river, arching and diving toward the ship. Seda ignored the sudden appearance of the reclusive dolphins and dipped the necklace in the water to ceremoniously bond the necklace and the two girls with the river. Some day she might tell Anjaleene of her father’s first daughter and the life sacrifice she offered. The dolphins slipped silently through the water to form a line in front of Seda. The goats were strangely silent; Seda could see them gathered at the pen’s fence, watching respectfully. A pair of dolphins approached the plank walkway. They rose out of the water to touch the baby with a flipper then backed away, no splashing. Another pair approached and repeated the honor; and so all the river dolphins in the pod blessed Lacer’s child. With each blessing Seda’s tears fell harder until she couldn’t see, she cried silently.
The final pair rose out of the water and rested on the board walkway on either side of the child. One clicked and whistled softly to gain Seda’s attention, breaking the sustained silence of surroundings. She brushed away the tears and leaned over to place a kiss on the baby’s forehead; the necklace glowed through the fabric of her pocket. The dolphins took the edges of Lacer’s bloody shirt in their teeth and slid backward into the water, the baby’s body rocked gently just above the river’s surface as they carried her away between parallel lines of honor.
Seda watched, fascinated, as the elusive river dolphins disappeared in the darkness. She clutched at the necklace; it was warm in the chill of the midnight air. The night noises gradually returned as she rocked in time to the river’s flow. A baby’s cry shocked her back to reality from the dream-like event with the dolphins. Shaking her head in wonder she rinsed the remaining towels and wrung them out. She hurried back to Niat’s room. Bare feet pounding across the ship’s starboard deck ramp alerted her to the arrival of Lacer’s eldest son, Jenner, and the witch.
The boy bowed in respect to the housekeeper, “How goes it with Niat?”
The witch watched from under her dark wrap, silent. Seda considered the woman’s sharp eyes and smiled. “Twins!”
At the open mouthed stares Seda’s smile stretched to her soul. Only two people would know the real story; but there’d be no questions tonight or ever, for there were two placentas and two dark haired, blue eyed babies nursing at their mother’s breasts. She took the witch’s hand, “Come, Ferenka. You must bless them.”
The witch closed her mouth and smiled. “So that’s why she’s early. Any troubles?”