In her mind she had always known it would hurt. After all, she had been there at the birth of numerous babies back at her village, including her little brothers. But her mind was one thing, reality was something entirely different.

She tried not to scream. She had been told Quarthi women didn’t scream. But she wasn’t Quarthi and with all this pain, they had to be lying. Another wave of agony and the scream poured from her lips, whether she wanted it to or not, shattering the quiet of the forest. She rocked on her hands and knees—because somehow it eased the pain, if only a little—as the shamri busied around her backside. Very undignified. The women of Toth always gave birth on their backs. Though that was hardly better, she thought.

‘It will be easier on the baby and on you,’ the shamri had told her. ‘All mothers give birth upright, whether beasts or human.’

Beasts. Upright. She rocked harder at another ripping cramp. Apparently, many Quarthi women bore their children standing up. That would never happen. She was no hero. Hands and knees would do. Like an animal.

A warm hand pressed against her shoulder. A gentle voice spoke in her ear. ‘Biala, it’s not too late.’

Grinda shook her head, sweat flinging in all directions from her sopping hair. ‘No. I can do this.’

She might scream and she might kneel but she wouldn’t take their drug. No chokra. It might ease the pain but it would damage her image. Not that she had much of an image yet. The Quarthi were not impressed with her. She’d only been a part of the clan one month and had a lot to prove. Chokra was a weakness too far. A failure as a woman, as a mother, as a Quarthi. No Quarthi woman had ever taken the drug unless she was dying. No matter how many hours labour. No matter how the child might rip her insides out.

She sat up on her knees, and Mock helped steady her as she swayed. Her belly was huge, bigger than she’d ever seen on any woman. The Quarthi natives were so much larger than her own people. So it wasn’t surprising that her baby—half Toth, half Quarthi—was just as big.

Another savage cramp and she screamed again. Mock knelt in front of her, his big warm hands on her shoulders. His eyes had sunken in. Deep creases etched the corners of his mouth. And a thin layer of sweat shimmered against the light of the fires. Even despite the pain, it hurt to seem him so worried. From somewhere outside of her she could hear the voices of the Quarthi lift, a sudden frenzied activity. Something was happening. But it was all so confusing and unimportant and so far away. The pain, the exhaustion—that was all the world was now.

Then Mock pressed his forehead to hers, bringing her back. His eyes glittered. ‘Breathe, biala, breathe. She is coming.’

Finally! She could have wept. Her cramping had started late-afternoon and now it was close to morning. Sweat trickled between her breasts, down under her arms, behind her ears. She hadn’t eaten, hadn’t drunk, hadn’t even passed water. The world spun.

But she was coming!

Mock seized onto her at another convulsion, wrapping his arms around her as she cried out. A second convulsion. Another wave of agony. Her hips seemed to twist. Something seemed to split inside her. A rush of heat, a searing agony between her legs, then something gave.

A gush. Grinda widened her legs. A sliding: slippery and hard and so enormous. She opened her legs more, gripped onto Mock harder, as her opening widened to a point she couldn’t believe.

Another gush, another wave of agony, a fast slippery slide and it was out! She sagged against Mock, trembling and gasping, no longer able to hold herself up. Mock kissed her cheek, her neck, her shoulder, embraced her as he rocked her from side to side. ‘You did it, biala.’

Her heart thundered. She gasped for breath. The shamri were doing things to her. Vaguely, she could feel their hands against her arse, between her legs, gabbling to each other as they worked. Then there was a sudden wail. One that twisted her insides and made her heart lurch. Pulling away from Mock, she turned. And that lurch turned to something that swelled, so big she thought her heart must burst.

My baby. My daughter.

Grinda must have been crying; hot tears spilled down her cheeks. She held her hands out and suddenly she was there, in her arms, a small pink bundle, a brown thatch on her head, mouth wide as she continued to wail. But then Grinda pressed her against her breasts and that wide, beautiful mouth stopped its screaming.

Silent. Content. Happy in her mother’s arms.

And that’s when everything disappeared, all the noise, the forest, the ground beneath her. Even Mock. All except for that weight in her arms, that glimmer of light against that perfect, pink skin, that moist mouth against her breast. It didn’t feel real.

The swelling didn’t stop. And she wondered how her heart could withstand so much. Somehow she didn’t feel so tired anymore. That half day of agony meant nothing.

In love again. For the second time.

How lucky was she?

A perfect little hand wrapped itself around Grinda’s hair. Grinda smiled and it seemed to go on forever, stretching across her face, through the forest, spanning over lands and oceans and mountains until it enveloped the world.

‘It’s nice to meet you, little Zin.’

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