06-The Middle

Aurora splashed cold water on her face and then just leaned against the counter as she regarded her pale face in the mirror. The glamour of teenage youth she had cast had faded gradually so she looked more woman then girl now, though still in the blush of healthy adulthood. Her youthful appearance was considered by all to be a product of a happy marriage, a healthy diet not observed by any outside of their lands, and extreme care she was rumored to take with her skin. It had been 12 years since she became the Countess of Huntingdon. Twelve glorious years with a man she loved more then her own life, respected more then she had any man she had ever known - including her father. That first decade she had selfishly wanted for herself. She shared Julian with their people, but had wanted to have him only to herself other then that; to experience as much of their lives together as possible without anything else pulling at her heartstrings. She had stopped using that special collection of herbs and sorcery three years ago. For a time she had worried that she might have used them so long that now that she was ready to take this step, she had messed it up somehow.

Then she had the vision, and knew better.

Aurora leaned back against the wall and cast the spell again. A pale blue light surrounded her and she smiled while she watched it fade. She checked her reflection again in the mirror and went out to greet her returning hunter. There would be celebrating this night.

Julian was returning with two wild boar. He had brought down a deer, but he and his men field dressed it, and delivered it to a settlement whose crops had experienced a bit of trouble. He had originally gone out on a simple hunt, and to check on the more distant villages of his domain. It was there that he got reports of a group of thugs, brigands that turned out to be Norse Raiders cut off when their ships and other forces were crushed by the bannermen of those lords near the shore. He would have been home sooner, but he and his men lingered to see what they could do about these foreign brutes. It had not taken long, an ambush of good Welsh longbows thinned them out, and when they went in on foot, Julian himself accounted for four.

When they came up the causeway and into the keep, it was clear they'd seen battle, but their spirits were up. He sent the boars to the kitchens for proper butchering, and knew without having to see her that his Wife would soon make an appearance. Stable hands ran up to tend to his horse, a bold Arabian rabicano stallion that was very fleet of foot. He was named Ahmar, an Arabic word meaning red. Julian had clearly been in a fight, and was intent on washing of the grit and blood of the road. He called for his Squire to tend to his weapons, and headed into the House, intent on bathing before he saw Aurora.

He didn't get the chance; his wife was waiting for him there at the front door. She was smiling before he was even near, and she held in her hand a glass of clear, cold water to refresh him from his ride. A towel slung over her shoulder. Her smile faltered when he neared and she saw the blood, and she was walking to meet him, scanning him for injury. Not that he ever had any, but she worried.

"All is well in our demesne, Beloved?"

"It is now, cheri, it is now." Julian leaned in to kiss her, and took the water gladly, drinking it down in one long pull. He sighed, and noticed the way she was looking at him. "I am fine, Aurora. Norsemen too far from shore, and cut off." He was a warrior, and had been in plenty of battles, but he had never been bloodthirsty. He killed out of necessity, not out of a need for glory. "I killed men whose culture left me no choice but to send them to the kind of end their Gods demanded of them. I hope they are happier where ever it is I sent them."

He smiled at her, "I need a bath." Julian took her hand, "Join me."

John, one of Beth's grandsons, a young man of sixteen, and Julian's squire, arrived to take his Master's weapons and gear. He quite skillfully helped Julian from his leather cuirass without slowing the couple as they walked, leaving the rest for Aurora to eventually help him remove.

His wife smiled up at him as they walked hand in hand. "I would join you anywhere, bien-aimé."

At the bath, Aurora made quick work of divesting him of his remaining attire. She was well practiced by now in removing her husband's clothes in all manner of situations. Sometimes she made a show of it, but today she wanted him clean before, well, soon. She tossed her gown over a bench and joined him in the heated waters.

As she began bathing him - a task she got no end of pleasure out of, she leaned in and kissed him slowly. Taking her time in both endeavors.

Julian returned the kiss with fire, letting it linger as long as Aurora desired. There was no reason for restraint in their Bath, and if anything would have him leaving the concerns of his recent outing at the gate, it was time with his dizzyingly beautiful Wife. Aurora could feel him relax under her hands as she bathed him, and he smiled slightly as he lifted his arms to the marble edge and leaned against the side. He presented himself to her hands, enjoying the feel of them over his body as she bathed him. Despite his very clear arousal, he decided to wait until he was clean, taking pleasure in every kiss and caress. "Marion, Ann, and Much, the Miller's Son, all send their regards." Julian groaned as he hands moved, and growled low in his chest as she kissed him. "Johan is back to work at the Mill, thanks to your remedies."

"Oh, good," she murmured, focusing on washing his hair. She loved his hair and could spend hours just letting her fingers card through its silky length. "He sounded worse then he was, but I am pleased to hear he has recovered." Her hands were both at the base of his skull and working slowly upward, massaging his scalp. "What do you think of the name Alexander?" she asked casually.

Julian groaned again, washing his hair might almost be enough. He relaxed, almost floating in the water as his head remained in Aurora's gentle hands. It took him a moment to answer, as he was lost to the sensation. He took a breath, "It is a good name. Greek. Derived from 'Alexandros' I believe, meaning 'Defending Men' or 'Defender of Men'. Then, of course, there was Alexander the Great, who was not so much a defender as he was a conqueror, but he was in the vicinity, at the very least." Julian sighed softly, fell silent for another moment, and thought to add, "Why do you ask?"

Aurora chuckled softly at his scholarly answer and leaned in to kiss him again. "I thought it might be a good name," she whispered, her lips barely brushing his. "For the son of the Earl of Huntingdon."

Julian, who was in an oddly mingled state that combined measures of arousal, relaxation, and a kind of pleasurable stupor. He kissed his Wife's lips tenderly, happily, and almost did not register the meaning of her words. "Oh, that would be a good name for our Son. We will have to remember it." He smiled and kissed her again, his eyes almost closed as he smiled in bemusement. "Yes, Alexander will do nicely."

She smiled crookedly, but didn't say anything else just yet. Merely continued her ministrations on his hair.

He fell silent for a moment, his eyes closing — and then his bright blue eyes snapped open, and he splashed a bit, accidentally dunking himself as he got his feet under him. He came up sputtering, shook his head like a hound shaking water from its fur, and cupped Aurora's face as water dripped down his face. Quietly, as if speaking too loudly might make his assumption untrue, he asked. "Do you mean to say that you are with — ?" Julian almost did not want to say the word; what if he was wrong? His kind were not known for their fertility, the numerous Queens of his Father aside.

Aurora unleashed the bright joyous smile she had been holding back as she looked up at him. "About six weeks along," she affirmed. "I suspected for a few weeks, but I wished to be certain before I said anything. And I know that it is a boy."

Julian whooped, his smile as broad and bright as Aurora's. He lifted her up by her hips, clear out of the water, before wrapping his arms around her for the kind of kiss that had gotten her into her current state. He did not even think to ask how she could possibly know it was a boy, he was too happy about the entire thing. His hand covered her belly for a moment, then he kissed her again, and proceeded to remind her just how loving her could be. Not that Aurora needed any such demonstration. When they were breathless, he cradled her in his arms, nuzzling her in the heated waters.

"You are the love of my life, Aurora. I do not think I could be any happier than I am right now." He kissed her shoulder, smiling brightly.

"Nor I, mon cour," his wife laughed happily. "Pour toujours. You are my love and my joy. My life."

Julian held her close and kissed her for a long, sweet moment. "We will have to tell Beth to prepare a nursery, if she has not already." He smiled, "He will need a tutor, for those times when we are busy with affairs of state." He met her eyes, "And with each other." He grinned, "I will have to find him a pony." Julian laughed, "But I am getting ahead of myself, first things first." He gazed lovingly into her eyes, "May I deliver the baby? I will understand if you want a midwife, instead. I just do not want to be pacing the halls like other men do."

"If that is what you want," she smiled, running her fingers through his beard. "Though if you are doing the work, you will be too focused on the details, no? Perhaps we can have a midwife and you can be there at my side. I understand I will be wanting to yell at you during the delivery."

Julian smiled, "As you wish, I would not want to be unavailable for being yelled at." He kissed her lightly, "What is your best estimate for the month of our Son's birth?"

"If my calculations are correct, he will be born on the Autumnal Equinox," Aurora smiled broadly. "When Sherwood is most glorious."

Julian smiled, "Perfect." He kissed her, and lifted her from the bath, carrying her up the steps. He held her still, as they stood by the towels, and let their kissing continue. When it finally broke, he slid her to her feet. "When would you like to share the news?" He held her close, his hand in her hair, the other gently caressing her back as she rested against him.

"As small as I am, I will probably be showing next week," she chuckled against his chest. "Whenever you like, my dearest love. But I did already ask the kitchens to prepare something special for dinner tonight."

Julian smiled, "Then let us save it until after dinner. We will announce it then." He grinned, "And then I will abscond with you to our chambers." He shrugged slightly, "As is our tradition." Julian hugged her tightly, "You're the most wonderful woman in all the world." He stepped back with a smile, and attempted to help her towel dry and get dressed.

"Oh, Julian," she sniffled. "You will make me weep at this rate." She stepped up and rose on her toes to kiss him. "I love you," she said solemnly. "No matter what this world throws our way, you remember that. Always."


1088

She had stayed as active as she could for as long as she could, but it came to the point where even Aurora had to admit defeat. If she wanted to go the tower that last month or so, Julian had to carry her. It nicked at her pride, but it wasn't as if she minded dreadfully having her husband carry her anywhere.

It had been a textbook pregnancy, and Aurora was obviously meant to bear children. Pregnancy suited her; she the picture of a serenity, glowing with happiness both internal and reflected from her beloved; her skin glowed with health, her hair gleamed like the morning sun. Fortunately for all concerned, when the cravings started it was spring and summer and the berries and cucumbers and melons were in ready supply.

She had, much to the staff's chagrin, insisted on the nursery being decorated by she and Julian. She daubed and whitewashed the walls, preparing them for murals. Then together they spent days over sketches until they hit on something Aurora thought would be perfect for Alexander until he was ready to move out of the nursery.

Much to the chagrin of their peers, the Countess refused to shut herself up in the house and hide her condition. On the contrary, Aurora was proud to be seen bearing her husband's child. The only time she had lost her temper in those months was when she overheard someone remark on how unseemly they thought it was.

Julian was not above ejecting the highborn for stepping out of line in his house. Protests of their station, and telling the Earl that he would rue the day, had very little effect on him. Such discretions often led to internecine squabbles amongst the Lords and their banners, but few were the nobles that wanted to test Julian Longbow on the field of battle.

Everything was ready, everyone was prepped. The staff was more jumpy then Aurora, who continued to flit about with serene grace. So it was that she was in the library the afternoon of the day before the Equinox with her feet propped up on Julian's lap and a book propped up on her swollen belly, humming to herself. Every so often she would stop, glance over at the hourglass and then go back to what she was doing. She finally closed the book slowly and set it aside.

"Julian," she said in an even tone. "Are you very engrossed in that text?"

He shook his head slowly, "Not terribly. It's a grand Epic, and I have been meaning to finish it. I see why Beowulf is so bloody popular, but I far prefer One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. In Arabic." Julian continued to read silently for a moment, "How is yours?"

"I fear I will have to give you a full accounting later," she said easily. "Right now, I need you to help me …." she paused and took a deep breath, blowing it out slowly before continuing. "… up, and send for the midwife."

Julian's eyes widened slightly, and he dropped his book to the table. Carefully he got to his feet, and set Aurora onto her own. It would help things along for her to make the short walk to the Bath. He stayed with her, and called for a page. A young man ran up, and was immediately sent packing to find the midwife and Beth. The boy almost yelped, and ran off so quickly, he slid through a turn at a corner thanks to the smooth stones of the floor. "We are almost there, my Love."

"I am doing fine," she assured him warmly between contractions. They had to stop twice on the way there until more had passed, but Aurora had been carefully monitoring herself for the past few hours, and she had a good idea of where she was in the process. She was a midwife herself after all.

He had arranged for the water of the Bath to be specially heated, and had monitored it almost daily, when he was home. He had not left the Keep for a full week, deciding early on that he would not miss a thing. Julian was cheating. Children were so rare in his Family, that he would take no chances with his and Aurora's, and he had made arrangements to study and find a way to make the Birth as easy and uneventful as possible. He had created a removable brass wall for the Bath that created what he called a Birthing pool, and has schooled the Midwife they had brought in on how it would be used. Julian had made a special chair for Aurora to use in the water for the birth, one that would support her, but also allow the water's buoyancy to affect her beneficially. He would be there for the entire event, and had even constructed a floating tray for any implements that might be needed. Beth thought the both of them quite mad, but was there when they arrived, ready to receive the infant into his bassinet when he was ready to be put to bed.

"Remember what we practiced." Julian reminded her, an edge of concern in his voice now that the moment was nigh.

"It will be fine," she assured him, stroking his cheek before she dropped her robe and he helped her down into the water. Aurora wasn't convinced of the comfort of the contraption had it been on land, but underwater was fine. She had been iffy on the idea until Julian explained, after which it made perfect sense. She knew Julian was worried, but wrote it off as the nerves of a first time father.

Gravity went into effect shortly afterwards, and her hard labor started. Contrary to what she had joked about months back, his wife didn't yell at him, threaten his manhood or once scream that he was never touching her again. She did, however, nearly cut off the circulation in his hand more then once, and her grunts and cries echoed in the high ceiling room. Then, a moment of near silence and the cry of a newborn took their place.

Aurora burst into happy tears when the midwife handed Julian his nude and wiggling son. He had a head full of black curls and was the most amazing thing his mother had ever seen.

Julian smiled broadly enough that the corners of his mouth were in danger of touching his ears. "Hello Alexander." He said in a voice thick with emotion, tears welling in his eyes. He leaned over and kissed Aurora. "We made a beautiful boy." He kissed her again, and then kissed his baby boy. "Welcome to Huntingdon, my Son." Julian moved to Beth who had a towel and blanket ready, and together they bundled up the little one, and while Aurora was being helped from the water and into warm clothes, the Earl of Huntingdon rushed out to make the announcement.

He stopped first in the hall, where all commotion came to sudden stillness at his arrival. He raised up his infant son, "I present to you Lord Alexander, Heir of Huntingdon. My Son!" Julian's happiness was a glowing and nearly palpable thing as he strode through the cheering crowd, and threw open the main gates onto the courtyard and repeated his announcement where it was meet by more cheers, and soldiers banging their swords on their shields. A blue pennant was raised to signal the birth to the people of Huntingdon, and then Julian raced back to his Wife.

The Earl placed the infant Lord into the arms of his Countess and Wife, and knelt by her side. "Look what we did."

Aurora had been moved to a comfortable wide reclining couch and wrapped in a warm robe. Damp curls that had escaped their braided confines framed her face as she gave him a tired but happy smile. She leaned over and kissed him before turning her eyes to the baby wiggling in her arms. "He is so beautiful, Julian," she whispered while Alexander gripped her finger. "So perfect."

"Just like his Mother." Julian replied softly.

The newborn turned towards the blanket that was against his face and made a displeased noise that it wasn't what he wanted it to be. Aurora chuckled as she shifted him while opening her robe. He latched on to her breast as soon as it was presented to him and she laughed lowly.

"Just like your father."

Beth, who was standing nearby, had the good grace to turn away before her shoulders shook with suppressed laughter. Julian blushed slightly, which was actually quite rare for him to do. He kissed his Wife's cheek, smiling, and held Mother and Son in his strong arms and stayed there while the baby fed. Beth brushed off the midwife and other attendants, and quietly left the new Family alone to get acquainted.

Drunk on the wine and ale served at the celebration, a couple of visiting Lordlings and their knights attempted to see Julian and his Son, and were met with Beth's withering stare, and the advice that they should try again on the morrow.

After being fed, burped and cleaned up, Alexander was handed to his father, where he fell asleep on Julian's broad chest listening to his father's heartbeat. As tired as she was, Aurora couldn't quite bring herself to sleep, even with her head resting in the curve of Julian's shoulder encircled by his arm.

She lightly ran a finger over the downy soft black curls on the baby's head. "He looks like you," she said softly. "He will have your chin, and the most glorious eyes. I shall have to beat the girls off with a stick."

Julian smiled, "No courting until he's Fifty, Hmm?" He let the little baby grip his finger. "Look at these tiny hands. With tiny fingernails." He laughed a little bit, "We have so much to teach him." Julian kissed Aurora, and freed her hair, so he could stay there with her, and idly run his fingers through it. "I will make his first bow." He touched the soft little cap the baby wore, "Just as I made these."

He settled there with his Family, his thoughts turning towards his brothers. Gerard would be ecstatic, the great bear of a man was born to be someone's kindly Uncle. Caine would be equally pleased, but more interested in the boy as he got older, Julian's older brother was a man of the mind — devious perhaps — but no less intellectual for all that. Who better to wrestle with than Gerard, or sail with than Caine. A new Son of Amber was born, and he really should tell everyone; but all he wanted to do was keep his Family to himself, safe and unknown, and under his protection.

But even Julian could not stop the march of time.

7-The Center Cannot Hold

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