A screeching north wind raked the moor with bitter talons, driving the snow before it in lances of vicious ice. It depressed the sky in iron-grey clouds, their billows cloaking the moon, and flayed the dead brown sedges. The mud froze hard, their customary treachery exchanged for the new danger of slippery ice for the duration of the winter. Far beyond the mire, in the stone castle at the edge of the moor, a woman screamed in the agony of her labor. Droplets of sweat beaded her brow and shone in the flickering firelight, and flowed freely in hot rivers between her tightened shoulder blades and down her ruddy face. Her soft woolen shift was dark with moisture.
"Please," she sobbed, her arms trembling with effort as her fingers slipped and seized on the rope that suspended her from the rooftree. Her knees buckled, and the old leech woman caught her before she could fall, withered fingers biting through shift and flesh.
"Please do not let it come!”
Another spasm wracked her body, and she screamed again, her wails rising with the curls of smoke that brushed the roof overhead. The wind answered with its own unearthly howl. A toothless grimace split the midwife's craggy face as she lifted her kerchief and wiped at her own forehead, raising her gaze from beneath her patient's skirts to stare impassively into the mother's dull eyes.
"Bad luck," the old woman snapped in a cracked voice as thin and quick as a whip. "You've a solstice child, a midnigh’ child."
From beyond the curtain that divided the room in two, there came the sound of a startled cry of a child. Two pairs of eyes peered around the thick-spun veil, one frightened bairn and a worried father, retreating only when the leech woman fixed them all with a sharp-eyed glare.
"Please, please," the mother cried, lifting her face to shout her pleas to the gods. "Just until elding!"
"This fighter?" the old woman croaked. "Try holding this 'un in, and it'll force its way out. You'll both die, and this day will live up to its evil name." She picked up the mother's skirt and tucked it into her rough rope belt, massaging the swollen belly with callused chicken-claw hands, their nails short and cracked and yellow. She dug a bundle of herbs from her scarred leather pouch and threw it into the fire, filling the castle with the bitter perfume of cleansing sage and wittenwood that stung the eyes and the throat. The harsh smoke rushed and writhed. The mother contracted, her body straining hard against her will. Her lips clenched tight, arresting another scream in her mouth. A strangled moan emerged instead, mingled with sweat and tears.
"There," said the old woman. "I see hair. Blonde, like yours, Freydis." Her hands closed around the mother's belly and she pressed hard, in time with the next spasm. Quick as a shot, she snatched up a clean flannel and caught the baby as it fell. The child flailed her damp red fists and opened her mouth, adding her angry wailing to the voices on the wind. With one swift twist of...