As it so happened, I was chosen to stay with the baby’s mother until morning. Leah and I had moved her to a clean bed, and changed her into a clean, dry shift as well.
I took my place at her bedside, armed with all sorts of medicinal brews that might help, more towels, and several jugs of water. She had lost consciousness shortly after giving birth, and hadn’t regained it yet.
The night passed slowly, and I tried all I that I knew, the desire to save her overpowering all other needs. Finally I leaned back in my seat, all of my methods exhausted. She hadn’t reacted to anything that I’d tried, and I began to pray, uncertain as to what else I could do.
A bell tolled the hour, finally, informing me that it was midnight, and I prepared myself for the six long hours. Silence fell in the infirmary as the bells stopped ringing, and the woman and I were left alone in the silence.
At about four in the morning she began to stir, and I moved a little closer to her. She whispered a single word- a name- almost inaudibly.
“Miss,” I murmured. “Miss…”
She didn’t respond, and as I took be by the hand I felt her heartbeat falter. I squeezed her hand gently, and leaned back, frustrated that I could do nothing more for her. It was like I was eleven again, watching my mother die before my own eyes.
Within the hour her heart had stopped beating, and her breathing stopped shortly after that. I felt a single tear roll down my face.
You’re so useless, I thought, frustrated. You couldn’t save her. That poor child… It’s because of your ignorance that he doesn’t have a mother now. Looking back, some of it was unreasonable, but I couldn’t stop blaming myself.
I studied her face in the early morning light. She was still very pale and her skin was almost translucent, revealing dark veins underneath. Several faint bruises were fading from her face, and a few scratches suggested that her voyage had been a hard one.
She was of a delicate build, and I could tell that she was relatively short. Dark, knotted hair lay spread across the pillow, and I knew her eyes were just as dark.
With a smooth move I rose and pulled the blanket over her head. I blew out my candle, and left the infirmary, thinking about the name as I made my way to the office.
Mordred. It’s not a very common name. Why would she have said it, I wonder?
Carefully, I tapped on the office door, knowing that the Abbess would be there, as she rose an hour before the rest of the sisters so that she could have her own time of reflection before her duties began in the morning. I was not disappointed.
“Come in,” she called quietly. I let myself in, only to see her sitting at the desk, going through the paperwork. “Oh, Sister Morgan, it’s you. How is that poor woman doing?”
“She’s dead,” I said, not happy about having to deliver this report. Not a single mother that I had tended in childbirth had died until this morning.
“Oh, dear,” the Abbess said, looking extremely upset by the news. “May the Lord have mercy on her soul. Did she say anything?”
“Just a name,” I said, just wanting to go somewhere that I could be alone. “Mordred.”
“Mordred?” the Abbess asked, surprised. “Well, if that is what she said, then we shall name her child that. She did have a son, correct?”
“Yes, Mother,” I said, the tiredness catching up with me.
“You are dismissed to reflection time,” the Abbess said. “I will send the gatekeeper and his son to the infirmary to retrieve the woman for burial. Her son, Mordred, will stay in our nursery.”
“Of course,” I said, tipping my head respectfully before I left the office.
“Oh, and Morgan?” the Abbess called after me. I paused in the doorway. “I am aware that you have been awake all night. You may sleep during the morning chores, like those sisters that prepare breakfast.”
“Thank you,” I said, wanting to collapse where I stood.
The woman was buried sometime in the morning, in an unmarked grave. The other sisters continued on with life, but over the next several months I felt like mine had been dramatically altered.
I made it my duty to care for her son, Mordred. I owed it to him, I though. After all, I hadn’t been able to save his mother.
Two years passed, with me trying to make amends, caring for him as I would for my own son if I’d had one. Mordred grew quickly, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was his mother’s spirit, back to haunt me from the grave, he looked so much like her. It was my reminder, my punishment, for my failure.
Now, it was common for all of the orphans to stay at the abbey until they turned three. After their third birthday, most of them were taken in my good christian families, who couldn’t have children of their own for whatever reason, or elderly couples whose offspring had left them.
Mordred’s third birthday approached, and I went to the Abbess to ask her to permit Mordred to stay on. I didn’t think that I would be able to handle the guilt if he left, and I had grown to care for him so much.
“Sister Morgan, you know the rules just as well as I do,” she said crisply. “You have been here for fourteen and a half years. If a child that is under our care is chosen by someone that wants a child, and who can offer that child a good home, we must turn over the child to those people.”
“Yes,” I said miserably.
“Besides, have you forgotten your vows, to forsake all earthly bonds?” she asked me, slightly more sympathetically. “Sister Morgan, if you wish to continue your care for the child, you will have to leave the abbey to do so.”
“Of course,” I said quietly, feeling torn.
“You are dismissed,” she said, returning to the never ending stack of papers. I left the office silently.
Can I let the child go? I wondered, making my way to the infirmary. Or should I leave the abbey? It’s been my home for half of my life, and the people in it are my family. Where would I even go if I leave here? Would my uncle’s family take me in?
With a sigh, I let myself into the nursery, and was almost bowled over by several of the little ones, Mordred in the lead. Giggling two and three year olds clung to my legs, trying to hold me still.
“It’s Sisser Morgan,” one of them cried out as I tried to untangle myself from their tight grasps.
“What’s all of this about?” I asked, picking up a small girl and taking Mordred by the hand as I made my way into the room, kicking the door shut.
“Well, well, well,” one of the little boys began. “Well, we want to play with you.” I smiled as I deposited the little girl onto the nearest bed and wiped away a smudge of dirt from Mordred’s face.
“Play?” I asked, ruffling his hair fondly, before turning and picking up a brush from a nearby bed side table and scooping up another girl into my lap as the sister who had been on duty before me slipped out. “Play what?”
“Hide and go theek,” the girl whose hair I was brushing lisped.
“I don’t think the other sisters would like that much,” I said, braiding her fine red hair neatly. “How about ‘Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button’?” My suggestion was greeted with several loud cheers, and I collected the small wooden button we used from the shelf.
“John, why don’t you start,” I said, handing the button to one of the quieter boys. He beamed and I turned away as they began to pass the button around the room. Their giggles made me smile, and when I turned around a bunch more giggles and stealthy glances made me laugh.
“Does Eve have the button?” I guessed. Her response was a smug smirk as she showed me her empty hands.
“You’s siwwy, Sisser Morgan,” John informed me through his laughter.
“I have the button,” Mordred said, pleased that I had guessed wrong.
“Oh,” I said, pretending to be upset with myself. “You’re so good at this game.” More giggles ensued, and I turned around.
As the children whispered and giggled as the button made it’s rounds throughout the room, I made up my mind.
No matter what the cost was, I would repay my debt to Mordred. I would raise him, leaving the abbey if I needed to.