Four weeks later
With sweaty hands and on shaky legs, Catherine de Medici slowly trudged along the rough surface of the wall.
"I will send him away. Keep on taking long and deep breaths, your Grace." Sophia, her midwife, beckoned to Mathilde, Catherine's most senior Lady in waiting and directed her to hold the queen's arm in lieu thereof. Catherine took a deep breath while waiting for the next contraction to come. About three hours ago her water had broken and contrary to the advice of her midwife, she had spent the last half hour walking up and down her chamber.
"Your Majesty, her contractions only started three hours ago. It will surely take some time until your wife gives birth. I will send for you as soon as the baby is born."
Catherine exhaled with a hissing noise and tried to breathe the pain away. At the same time, her eyes swept to the door where Sophia tried to repel Henry with resolute insistence. The latter, however, seemed unimpressed as he vigorously pushed past the smaller woman.
"There is no need, I'm staying. Catherine, my dear, how are you doing? I rushed over here as soon as I've heard you're in labor. I should never have let Francis and Bash talk me into taking part in this stupid ride in the first place."
Irritated by Henry's arbitrary actions, Catherine stared up at her husband in amazement and even forgot her pain for a split second.
"Henry? What in the name of God are you doing here?"
"Well, I'm here to bestead you, darling," he replied softly and with an implicitness that was second to none. Turning towards Sophia, he asked, "Shouldn't she be in bed?"
Now his words sounded less gentle, but rather reproachful.
"No, I have to move," Catherine defended her actions as if in fear that Henry's and Sophia's combined authority might contain her need for movement.
"'Okay, whatever helps you." To her amazement however, Henry gave in without any significant resistance and pushed Mathilde aside, reaching for Catherine's arm in turn. "Are you in a lot of pain?"
"What do you think? Does it look like a walk in the park? I'm in labor, for Gods sake! Henry, even at the risk of repeating myself, what are you doing here? I..." Catherine stopped in the middle of her tirade when another contraction rolled through her abdomen and left her gasping for breath. Henry immediately tightened his grip on her upper arm as if afraid that she might collapse right before his eyes.
"Is this normal?" he asked the midwife and Catherine could detect great concern in his voice.
"Yes, your wife IS in labor. And you shouldn't be here. This is no place for men. Not for a husband and certainly not for a King."
Catherine, who had found support in Henry's strong arms in an unexpected way, briefly closed her eyes and waited for the pain to subside.
"No, I will stay," her husband decided resolutely. His words prompted Catherine to re-open her eyes to openly stare at him.
"Henry," she started, but every word of disapproval tacitly died on the tip of her tongue.
Could it be possible that she wanted him to stay?
"Just tell me what I can do to help," he asked her instead and patiently stayed by her side when Catherine slowly put one foot in front of the other to restart wandering around her chambers.
"I don't think that's a good idea." Sophia's voice sounded dismissive and disapproving, but Henry didn't mind the midwife's protest. His attention was solely focused on her. "I will only leave if YOU ask me to leave. But I would like to stay, sweetheart. I feel that I've let you down these past months. Now I want to support. Let me be there for you."
It wasn't the choice of his words, but his pleading glance and the vehemence he spoke with, which convinced Catherine.
"Okay," she murmured quietly while the contraction rolled on and threatened to tear her body apart.
"Inhale deeply through your nose, right into your stomach," Sophia reminded her. "And exhale through your mouth. You're doing great, your Grace."
Since Henry was still supporting her, Catherine closed her eyes and mainly focused on her breathing. She had blind faith in Henry for not letting her slip out of his arms.
"I need to push. Do you think the baby has turned?" she gasped with great effort and clasped her stomach.
"Don't push just yet, Catherine. Your majesty, you may make yourself useful now. Take your wife back to bed. Mathilde, is everything set up? We need fresh linen and hot water."
Sophia issued her instructions in a calm and collected voice, prompting Mathilde and her servants to move on a high level of activity.
Even before the midwife's last words had faded away, did Catherine feel Henry's hands reaching around her back and under the hollow of her knees. A second later she found herself in her husband's arms, being carried over to their bed.
"I can walk," she hissed through gritted teeth when the most violent wave of pain was over.
"I know, but please allow me to feel less useless. You just concentrate on delivering our little prince here, alright?"
Once Henry had carefully placed her on the mattress that has already been prepared for the delivery, he was pushed aside by Sophia.
"If you absolutely insist on staying here, make sure you don't stand in my way," the midwife gruffly instructed her husband while shoving Catherine's nightdress up. "Move over to the headboard. That's where you can support your wife best." Sophia's voice sounded slightly contemptuous and Catherine was sure that the resolute woman would have thrown out any other man but the King of France. But Henry's unpredictability and his position of power frightened her.
"Now let's see how far along you are, Catherine. Remember to take long and deep breaths."
Catherine felt the midwife's hands first palpating her abdomen. At the same time the next contraction started rolling over her body. Henry, who sat down next to her, gently brushed a strand of hair from her sweaty forehead and looked down at her with a serious expression.
Mathilde, who had approached Henry, quietly explained him what to do.
"Here, your majesty. Take this damp cloth and dab Catherine's forehead with it. The best way to help your wife is by holding her hand and reminding her to breathe. And you should encourage her." There was no trace of reproach in her soft voice while prompting Catherine's husband to assume the role of her birthing partner. A role Mathilde had played time and again during all the years they knew each other. Her dearest lady-in-waiting who always stayed at her side. Mathilde had been present each time she had given birth. With her unquestioning loyalty and her level-headed and calm manners, Mathilde had always been Catherine's tower of strength. It calmed her in a strange way that both Henry and Mathilde would now be with her.
"You're fully dilated. This is good. But do not push just yet, your Grace."
"Dear Lord, but I have to push! Has the baby turned?" Catherine moaned when a new wave of pain overrun her body and buried her underneath.
"No, at least not completely. Remember to breathe."
A damp cloth was placed upon Catherine's face and cooled her overheated skin.
"What does not completely mean? What's wrong with the baby?" Henry sounded worried while one of his hands grasped hers.
"Can you turn it?" Catherine gasped and ignored Henry's question as the contraction slowly subsided. It took an enormous effort to resist the urge to squeeze the baby out of her body.
"What's wrong? What is she doing?" Henry's panic-stricken voice reached her ear while Catherine felt Sophia tampering with her belly with almost brute force.
"She tries to turn the baby into a better birthing position. She succeeded doing so with Henri at the time," Mathilde explained and Henry's fingers cramped tightly around Catherine's.
"I didn't know that," he replied in dismay and Catherine wondered whether it had been a mistake allowing her husband to attend the birth.
"Now is the time where you can make yourself useful, milord. Go and get Nostradamus. Tell him the child is in breech position." Instead of following the midwife's order, Henry's fingernails even dug deeper into the skin of Catherine's hand.
"What does this mean?" he asked, and Catherine noticed that her husband was on the verge of a panic attack.
"This means you have to hurry. You'd better run!" The urgency of the midwife's words tore Henry out of his state of shock and prompted the King of France to let go of his wife's hand. He rose and swept towards the door a second later.
"And you, Catherine, must not push under any circumstances. We will try to turn the baby. In case we are not able to do so, this is going to be a breech birth. Then we have to hurry to keep the baby from suffocating in the womb."
Sophia's hands felt her up again and Mathilde had stepped up to the headboard to take Henry's freshly vacant position, soothingly caressing Catherine's arm.
"You'll be alright", she whispered to the Queen and gently moistened her brow.
Two painful contractions later, where Catherine had bravely resisted the need to push, Henry stormed back into the room, closely followed by Nostradamus. He was clearly out of breath and his facial expression reflected grave concern. Henry immediately resumed his position at her side, while Nostradamus and the midwife briefly discussed their options in low voices.
"Alright, your Grace. We will now try to turn the child. I want you to take a deep breath, okay?" Catherine nodded in agreement and tried to inwardly prepare her body for the pain to come while she watched Nostradamus place his big hands on her swollen stomach. Sophia positioned herself between her spread legs. Involuntarily, her fingers cramped Henry's hand, nearly tearing his skin.
"Milord, please place yourself right behind your wife. You can support her and help holding her in an upright position." Without questioning the midwife's orders, her husband scooted behind her. "Very well. Are you ready?" Sophia asked Catherine, who closed her eyes in silent concentration for a split second. Then she nodded.
The sooner she brought this baby into the world, the sooner her ordeal would be over. With her teeth tightly clenched together, Catherine endured the tugging and tearing at her body. When her obstetricians stopped their combined efforts after what felt like an eternity, she could see by the serious look on their faces that their attempt to turn the baby had failed.
"Well, this is going to be a breech birth then. Catherine, I want you to push like you've never pushed before once the next contraction hits you."
"How risky is a delivery when the baby isn't in the right position?" Henry, who was firmly holding her in his arms to support her upper body, sounded more worried than ever before.
"We have to deliver this babe quickest possible, as it enters life feet first, or it might suffocate in the womb."
The next contraction stopped Henry from asking another question and with a sharp shriek Catherine cried her pain and frustration out into the world.
"Push, Catherine," Sophia encouraged her when the pain nearly became unbearable. "There you go. You're doing great, your Grace, keep on pushing."
One contraction followed the other and Catherine started squeezing the life, she and Henry had created, out of her body. A body that was already trembling with exhaustion. The intensity of her agony brought tears to the Queen of France's eyes and she firmly dug her nails into the back of Henry's hands. Her whole body seemed to be on fire. The contractions not only sent out rays of pain to her genitals, but also to her back and entire abdomen.
"You're doing great, the baby's legs are already through. It's a boy, Your Grace."
Sophia's words pierced through the heavy mist of pain.
"Have you heard, it's a boy! Our little prince. You're almost there, love." Henry's warm breath caressed the skin of her throat and Catherine rested her head against his strong shoulder.
By God, this wasn't her first delivery, but because of Henry's presence and the baby's unfortunate position, everything felt so very surreal. Everything except the pain.
Her next contraction robbed Catherine of her ability to think straight. Cheered on by Mathilde and Henry, she did everything within her power until complete exhaustion, but still she didn't feel her baby moving on. Catherine noticed Nostradamus and the midwife putting their heads together while Henry whispered soft words of encouragement into her ear and dabbed her forehead with a damp cloth.
"The baby is stuck, isn't it?" Her words were nothing more than a hoarse, exhausted whisper.
"Yes", Nostradamus confirmed her worst fear. "The head is stuck." Desperation reached out to Catherine and washed up a flood of tears that gently tickled down her cheeks.
"Well, then do something, damn it. That's why I fetched you in the first place, didn't I? I swear to you, if anything happens to Catherine or this child..."
"Henry," Catherine's voice trembled from exhaustion and the grip of her hand was weak. Yet her attempt to calm him down had an immediate effect.
"I will have to do an episiotomy. This will be painful. I'll have to..."
"Painful? What do you think it is I'm feeling right now? Do whatever the hell you have to do to get that child out of me, " she screamed and at the same time she felt her body start to tremble again.
"Is there no other way?" Henry asked and rubbed Catherine's shoulders in a calming gesture. "I don't like the thought of causing her even more, unnecessary pain."
"Do you like the thought of a stillborn more?" Sophia hissed at him. "Is the water ready?" She looked up between Catherine's legs and waved at one of the maids. Then she switched places with Nostradamus to sterilize the instruments.
It wasn't long before the next contraction rolled through Catherine's abdomen. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the midwife handing Nostradamus one of the surgical knives. The sight of the silver blade prompted her to swallow hard. She acknowledged the questioning look her seer gave her with a brave nod. A second later the pain of the cut mixed with the pain of the contraction.
"You have to push again, Catherine," Nostradamus instructed her.
When she pushed this time – harder than ever before - she thought she could feel the child slowly moving out of her body.
"Very good, here we go again, you are doing great. Only one or two contractions, then you'll be done." Sophia had obviously taken the reins over.
Catherine breathed a sigh of relief. So did Henry, who was still firmly holding on to her, as if he had held his breath far too long in worry.
Once the contraction had subsided, Catherine closed her eyes in resignation. She couldn't do this anymore. Not even one more contraction. How on earth should she muster the strength to carry on?
"You're almost there, darling. You're so brave." Henry stroked her cheek and brow again. But this time not with the damp cloth but with his rough fingers that felt cool on her overheated skin.
"I can't." Her words resonated with exhaustion.
"No, Catherine. You can do this. I know how hard it is, but..." Her husband did not get to finish his sentence for Catherine rudely interrupted him.
"Oh really? You know how it feels to squeeze a baby with a giant's head out of your body?" Her voice turned over with rage.
"No, of course I didn't mean it that way. But I know..."
"You know nothing!" Catherine was screaming by now and pushed his hands away, that were still resting on her shoulders to appease her.
"That's the energy we need right now. Catherine, I want you to put all that energy into the next contraction, alright? You can do this." Sophia stroked Catherine's thigh in an encouraging gesture. With a grim nod the Queen of France forced herself not to waste her strength with meaningless, verbal quarrels.
"I am sorry. You're right, I have no idea and I've never felt more helpless in my entire life. You're the bravest person I know, and I will be in your debt for most likely forever." To give his words more expression, Henry brushed over her cheek with the tips of his fingers.
"I will remind you in time. Henry, I… Oh dear Lord, damn it!" Her words turned into not very ladylike cursing when the next contraction washed over her like a humongous wave of pain. Feeling encouraged by Henry's and Mathilde's cheers, Catherine mobilized her remaining strength and pressed as long and as hard as she possibly could until a baby's scream arose.
A scream that meant redemption and euphoria at the same time.
"You did it", Sophia praised her while Catherine powerlessly sank back against Henry's chest.
"A healthy little boy."
After an initial examination and cutting the cord, the midwife placed the tiny miracle in Catherine's waiting arms. The little boy was still smeared from his venturesome birth and his skin was of an angry red color and creased. But he was the most beautiful sight in the eyes of the Queen of France.
"Well hello, my darling, I'm glad you finally made it into this world!" She greeted her baby boy in a cooing voice and completely fell in love at his sight. Henry, who was still sitting behind her in their bed, bent over her shoulder to take a first look at his son.
"He is so red... and wrinkled." His words caused Catherine to turn her head in his direction. She even forgot about Sophia and Nostradamus busying themselves between her legs.
"He has just been born, Henry, and he spent the last nine months inside my womb," she reminded her husband. This remark was typical of Henry.
But when she observed his face more closely, she saw nothing but infinite, unconditional love shimmering in his eyes.
"He is perfect, sweetheart. Just like his mother." Henry's words put a tentative smile on her lips.
Catherine knew that she was looking far from perfect right now. She was a sweaty, exhausted mess and certainly not a pretty sight. But his words and especially his deeds as of late made her feel cherished and loved.
"Yes, he is perfect. And a fighter." Catherine bent over her little prince and kissed his tiny forehead. This child had already cheated death in her womb. Several times. And yet here she was holding a beautiful, healthy and – according to Henry -perfect child in her arms.
Still completely enchanted by the sight of her youngest son, Catherine felt another, less violent contraction starting to roll over her body. Almost simultaneously, Sophia pushed a pan between her legs.
"Here we go with the afterbirth, Catherine. Girl, call for the wet nurse," the midwife instructed one of the maids with a resolute voice.
"No, I want to nurse him." Contrary to common etiquette, Catherine had breastfed most of her children. Always behind closed doors and without Henry's knowledge.
"As you wish, your Grace. Why don't you start now? Breastfeeding encourages the afterbirth."
"You want to nurse him yourself?" There lay only wonder, but no disapproval in Henry's words. Therefor Catherine nodded and, with Mathilde's help, she exposed her right breast.
"Yes, I am his mother, after all." She gazed at her husband with a challenging glare, but he did not response for he was too busy staring at her freshly exposed breast. With a self-satisfied smile on her face, she adjusted her little prince against her chest.
Following an ancient instinct, her little son opened his mouth and raised his head in search of her breast. Catherine gently pushed her nipple against his mouth and watched in fascination how the baby's lips closed around it.
It took the boy a few minutes before a soft smacking sound could be heard. This sound coaxed an amused chuckle out of Henry's throat and at the same time it put a smile on Catherine's lips.
"I guess he comes after me", Henry commented his son's bedside manners and placed his hand on her cheek to tenderly stroke her skin. Slowly he let his fingers wander over to her chin and towards her neck. It stopped at the base of her breast.
"You can touch him," Catherine encouraged him and raised her own hand to guide Henry's fingers over to their newborn.
"He is so tiny," her husband whispered, as he stroked his baby's head tentatively.
"Trust me, he felt anything but tiny." Her statement elicited an amused snort out of Henry.
"Catherine, I need you to push one more time, your Grace, alright?" The midwife tore the Queen of France out of her happy family moment. Catherine stared down at Sophia, who in turn looked up at her in expectation. Thus, she fatalistically nodded and took a deep breath to prepare her body for this last exertion.
Expelling the afterbirth was less arduous and painful than bearing the stitches Nostradamus had to do to suture the wound between her legs. But even this pain faded away at the sight of her prince, who was resting against her breast and had sucked himself to sleep. Completely taken by his sight, she stroked through the light fuzz of his hair and looked up at Henry, who returned her gaze with a strangely entranced expression on his face.
"Our little warrior prince needs a name," she remarked after a moment of silence.
"You're right. How about Lionel?"
"No." Henry's suggestion caused her to crinkle her nose in disapproval.
"What's wrong with Lionel? It's a powerful name."
"I will not name this child after an animal."
"Well, not Lionel then. How about Yves?" Catherine couldn't suppress rolling her eyes and resolutely shook her head.
Countless discarded name suggestions later - the couple was resting in their bedchamber with their little baby boy by now - Catherine sank her head against the crook of Henry's neck for a minute or two and closed her eyes in exhaustion.
"I never thought that finding a name would be such a Herculean task," Henry sighed and he sounded as tired as she felt.
It took a moment before his words sunk in. But then she blinked and straightened up.
"What do you think of Hercule?" she asked her husband.
Henry, who had ensconced himself in the freshly made bed, and who had done nothing else but stare at their baby in wonder for the last half hour, looked over to her in a consideration way.
"You would not name a child after a lion, but after a Greek demigod?" While Catherine regarded Henry, a broad grin spread all over his face.
"Hercule is a melodious and strong name," she defended her choice, looking at the infant between them. "And it suits him."
"Well, one thing is for certain: He had a rough start into life. And it probably takes particular strength to get through it all unscathed." At his last words, a dark veil fell over Henry's eyes. Catherine reached out for him and stroked his arm in a soothing manner.
"I no longer blame you. Your mind was poisoned."
Henry's other hand reached for hers and briefly squeezed her fingers in a grateful gesture. Then he bent down towards Hercule and reached for his tiny little hand.
" Welcome to life, Hercule. Consider yourself lucky, your mother is the best thing that could have happened to you. But please bear with your old man, he still has much to learn."
Here we go – a new chapter, a new life.
I hope you liked it and please be aware that I have absolutely no medical background. Please forgive me if I have messed up some parts of Catherine's delivery.
My dear readers, only one chapter left – we have nearly reached the end of this Cathry journey.
Thanks for your ongoing support. I really appreciate it.