p style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;"Bessa was fourteen years old, and not a single cry had left her lips in the ten hours she had been lying in a pool of her own blood./p
p style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;"She was surrounded by women. Keldar was dampening the cloth that had been on her forehead, briskly efficient and more kind than Bessa would have guessed. Isrel, fluttering about in her nervous manner, moving Bessa's feet and adjusting her blankets. Telea, the aged widow who served as a sort of midwife for all the Holdings within a day's ride. Her Honored Husband's Mother Val was there, too. She was as serene as she always was, holding Bessa upright against her own body. Bessa wondered how Val had survived her sixteen birthings - wondered how any woman could survive this over and over again./p
p style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;"Bessa shoved the knotted piece of rope into her mouth and bit down, hard, her back arching involuntarily against the ripping pain that coursed through her abdomen and sent white stars dancing through her vision. It went on and on, longer than any of the others she'd endured - although all of them felt that way in the moment./p
p style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;"All at once, as had happened each time before, the pain left, but the pressure remained. She collapsed back onto the mattress, her head thudding over Val's shoulder into the bedframe. She could hardly feel her legs, though her knees were pressed nearly into her own shoulders, held in place by two of the drudges that served the Holding./p
p style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;"Bessa tried not to look too closely at them. She didn't want to know if one of them was her sister: hair matted, filthy, disgraced. To see the envy in her sister's eyes. Didn't want her sister to see the envy in her own. Henna might sleep on the floor by the fire, beaten and ignored, but Bessa lay with a man who left her cringing away from from his hands. She, too, was beaten. And now she was caught between exhaustion and ripping agony. Altogether, Bessa thought she would rather change places with Henna, if it meant an escape from this unending misery./p
p style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;"She would have rather taken vows and become a Silent Sister than endure this./p
p style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;"Keldar was applying cool, wet cloths to Bessa's head again, and she nearly wept with gratitude. Someone had taken the knotted rope from her mouth, but coarse fibers remained, irritating her lips./p
p style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;""Get her up," she heard Val saying, "she's soaked through the pads again, and walking will help move the babe along."/p
p style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;"Through blurry vision, she could tell that Telea looked worried, as did Val. Her mother-in-law never looked worried./p
p style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;"emI can't, please, I can't/em, she thought, but somehow, as her body was forcibly maneuvered upright by the Wives and drudges, her legs straightened and held. Isrel and Telea walked her across the room once, twice. She thought the dampness on her cheeks might be tears - it seemed too much to be sweat./p
p style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;"Isrel and Telea's arms around her hurt - not at all like the gentle touches she and Lia exchanged - gently, worshipfully - in the bed they shared when Sendel had chosen to pound his jutting cock into another Wife. She let her mind drift to those peaceful nights. The clean, warm smell of Lia filling her nose. Her silky skin under Bessa's fingers. The soaring euphoria they shared she'd never felt with Sendel./p
p style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;"Mid-step, Bessa's legs gave out and the pain returned. This time she was sure it was worse. All she was, all she felt, all she knew, was pain. There was a dull roaring in her ears, and she thought she heard screaming. When she was aware of herself again, she found she had been put back into bed. Her tongue was swollen and she tasted blood. She couldn't see anything - could barely think./p
p style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;""I don't want to die," Bessa said, although it came out slurred; the words were deformed by her bitten-through tongue./p
p style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;""The child is born up to the shoulders, child," Keldar said, but chillingly, she was neither brisk nor commonsensical nor authoritative./p
p style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;"Bessa, shaking compulsively, fingers aching from gripping the sheets and the hands of her sister-wives, terrified and blind, felt the pain coming on again. She heard the screaming again, and wished whoever it was would stop. A flicker of pain in her throat got past the overwhelming reality of agony that was her entire abdomen long enough for her to realize the bestial howling was her./p
p style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;"And then, suddenly as it had begun, the pressure ceased, the agony abated, and a thin wail cut through the dull roar in Bessa's ears./p
p style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;""A daughter," Telea said mournfully./p
p style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;""Every child is a blessing," Val said reproachfully. "Look at her, Bessa. She takes after you."/p
p style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;"The reedy cries stabbed like knives, sent white-hot bolts of pain across the blackness which was all she could perceive./p
p style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;""I can't see," Bessa said, and wondered at the brief, total silence which followed her words. There was a flurry of activity and noise. She was picked up, stripped down, put down on something dry and warm. Someone was prodding her where she hurt most, firm hands preventing her from writhing away from the thumbs pressing into her stomach, the rough cloth scraping at her thighs and raw cunt./p
p style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;"The bitterness of nettle tea filled her mouth, ran down her throat, but she couldn't swallow. Her lungs heaved, forced it up again, stung her tongue and lips./p
p style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;"She wished the baby would stop crying./p
p style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;"She wished she could stop crying./p
p style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;"emDying isn't so bad/em, Bessa thought with a bolt of mental clarity. Her body was falling away, and the blackness was fading into something that reminded her of light. She wondered if the Goddess would hold her. If Val still was./p
p style="font-family: 'Lucida Grande', 'Lucida Sans Unicode', 'GNU Unifont', Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 14px;"Fleetingly, she/p
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