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Juno, bless us


Metella
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End of January, 77AD

It was almost as if she had stepped out of the heart of Rome, with its hustle and bustle, and back to an older time, when this northern part of the Esquiline had still been covered in lush greenery. The sacred grove of Juno Lucina, now surrounded by a wall and crowned with a temple, reminded Metella of the forests of her own homeland. It made her feel more peaceful. Which was a sacred achievement in and of itself, because she had not been calm for days. Ever since she'd found out she was pregnant.

She was not showing yet, but she still placed a hand on her belly as she looked around. The path led through the grove up a light slope to the temple. There was thick greenery all around; trees, flowers, bushes, only kept in check enough to allow a path through. There was birdsong, and the tickling of water somewhere nearby. Here and there, hidden along the path, were simple wooden benches. It made sense, given how many easily winded pregnant women probably visited this place.

Right now, there was no one in sight, but Metella could only see the next few steps of the path. Holding a basket in one hand, she started forward. She had some serious praying to do.

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Horatia - now into the last month of her pregnancy, had been determined to continue her weekly ventures to all the temples and shrines in the city associated with childbirth and womanhood. She divided them up on certain days but had been fastidious in attending them every week since she found out she was with child. It was one of the few things that made her feel calmer as the day her labour would start drew closer. It didn't make her calm, mind, but calmer. 

She'd hidden her terror well from her family, she knew that. As far as her children and possibly her husband thought, she was merely exhausted by the late stage of her pregnancy, but it was so much more than that. The only people that knew she had been within a few breaths of death during Calpurnia's birth were a handful of slaves and they were sworn to secrecy on their lives. She had to live with the memories though; of the pain and the blood and the burning heat of the fever, and waking up a week later with her mouth so dry she thought she'd choke. It was why she came here, to worship. She hadn't been as fastidious in her youth with her second child; Titus had been such an easy birth that she had slipped in her devotionals and that was why, to her, it had been so hard. She would not make the same mistake with her third child.

She sat on a bench, tucked away in the grove. She'd been brought here in a litter that now rested at the bottom of the slope, just outside of the walls, but had to make the gentle climb herself. It was more challenging than she remembered from last week and she tried to draw in breath, her cheeks flushed, almost at the top by the small temple. The pain across her back that gripped her muscles, and the ache in her belly wasn't helping. The simple green stola she wore, accompanied by the matching palla provided plenty of warmth - even in January - following the walk and so her rich, fur lined cloak lay abandoned on her lap. She tried to stand and winced in pain and tiredness. She sat back down. Just a few more minutes of rest, then she'd make it to the temple.

 

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Metella's steps slowed as the other woman came into view. She hesitated. Technically, the temple was open to all, but the other woman, looking heavily pregnant and none too cheerful, was clearly a patrician, and Metella was a slave. She looked somewhat familiar. Maybe a wife to one of dominus' friends? She tried to remember if any of them was expecting.

Metella would have sat down too, but she didn't dare. The pregnancy was not being a challenge yet, other than the constant morning sickness, but it would have been nice to sit. Instead, she paused, looking at the woman who seemed flushed and out of breath. She glanced around, but there was no one else nearby.

"Domina... are you alright?"

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Horatia glanced up at the voice. She hadn't seen anybody else on her walk up here and so the sudden noise surprised her. Domina - the use of it spoke to a slave, but Horatia was in no mind for that to matter now. If the woman was here that meant she was here on her own behalf, or that of a friend or family member. Childbirth and pregnancy had a way of equalling everybody, to her mind. She managed a breathless smile and nodded at the younger woman. 

"I'm quite alright, I'm fine." She let out a deep breath and splayed a hand across the taught bump at her middle, "The walk was harder than I remembered." She chuckled and indicated at the bench next to her. She shifted up again and winced as the ache in her back intensified for a brief moment before settling again. She wouldn't miss that"Please - rest, there's no more benches after this one and the temple is still a little walk away." She remembered the walk vividly after months of attending the temple and knew the final few minutes through the grove weren't pleasant if one was already exhausted. 

She glanced sideways at the woman and tilted her head - finding conversation a better distraction from her breathlessness, the pain and her own thoughts. "You're here for yourself?" 

 

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"I'm quite alright, I'm fine. The walk was harder than I remembered."

Metella was definitely not looking forward to that part. She had never been quite thin, but there was a difference between having curves, and being the size of a small domus and having to waddle around everywhere. She looked a little hesitant, but since the woman offered, she took a seat next to her, on the other end of the bench.

"You're here for yourself?" 

"I am" she nodded. It was clear for the other woman, but not for her, not yet. "I just... recently found out." The other woman, however, seemed to know her way around, even if she was out of breath. "You have been here before?" she ventured, making an educated guess.

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She offered the woman a sympathetic smile. Judging by the tentativeness in her voice this was not, perhaps, happy news. Horatia could relate. "Your first?" She enquired with a soft voice but an assessing gaze. The woman was young, and beautiful. She chose not to consider the circumstances of the child's birth - she'd heard from female friends all too well how slave children in their homes often grew up to resemble the dominus of the house, their husbands. She blessed the Gods Aulus wasn't such a man. Or that he was discrete, if he was. 

Nodding at the question, she glanced down at her bump. "This is my third." Which should have been a celebrated fact for women like her - it meant virtual emancipation from the grip of her father, but Horatia didn't see it as such. She had no desire to be any more emancipated than she was and the pregnancy gave her more fear than pleasure. "But I come here weekly - it's good to pay your respects often, not just once or twice." She offered to the other woman and turned her gaze back to her - adding more quietly. "If your master allows it, of course." 

 

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"Your first?" 

"Yes." Metella nodded. She was touched, by the kind tone of the other woman. Metella had never really been in the company of women much, other than the girl she cared for. Suddenly, being pregnant, made her feel like she shared something with this patrician woman that was impossible to explain to anybody else. "Yours?"

"This is my third. But I come here weekly - it's good to pay your respects often, not just once or twice... If your master allows it, of course." 

Third child. This woman had survived birth twice. Metella knew many women did, and more, but she was suddenly feeling the reality of such a statement like she never had before. And yet, she was here to pray, every week. Maybe Juno Lucina really did watch out for those who were devoted to her.

"I think he will. He has been... very considerate so far." Metella nodded. Maybe not weekly, but she would definitely come more often before the baby arrived. "It is... peaceful here."

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Horatia nodded. What considerate meant for a woman in her condition, as a slave, Horatia didn't know. There hadn't been a slavechild born in their own domus whilst Horatia had been living there - at least not any that she could recall. 

"It is." She offered a smile and turned her face to the meagre warmth of the sun. Even in winter the place was beautiful, but summer and spring was where it came alive. Should all go well, she would have to return later in the year to give her thanks and take peace from the grove when it was in full bloom. "It's a good place for contemplation." She mused aloud and sighed a little as the pain in her back and across the lower part of her bump tightened. She shifted on the bench and turned to face the other woman, trying to distract herself. "Your name?" She asked, or demanded but the tone of her voice was light despite her breathlessness at the tightening, "I'll offer a prayer for you as well. Every little helps..." They were in this together, after all.

 

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"It is. It's a good place for contemplation."

It was. Metella took a deep breath. Maybe this was the goddess' blessing, having an island of peace like this for women who were worried and scared. The other lady definitely seemed... out of sorts. But maybe it was just the climb.

"Your name? I'll offer a prayer for you as well. Every little helps..." 

Once again, she felt that warm feeling, of someone really understanding. It almost made her tear up. Metella smiled.

"Thank you, domina. I'm Metella. I belong to Lucius Cassius Longinus' household." If she was a patrician, she probably knew the name. "And your name? I wish to pray for you too."

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Horatia's brows rose in surprise and as the ache settled, she smiled, genuinely. "I know Cassius Longinus well," she nodded, "He is a close friend of my husband. They served together in Britannia, and he often calls round to our domus." It did not occur to Horatia that with her flame hair and freckles, the woman next to her might hail from that particular province. Why would she? She had almost identical colouring, after all, and was as Roman as garum and wine. She liked Longinus though - despite his immaturity - and felt relief wash through her that this woman wasn't under the thumb of some of the less savoury Patrician men she knew.

"Horatia Justina." She inclined her head in greeting and smiled softly, noting the tears welling in the other woman's eyes. She had always had so many women around her who had birthed children that she'd never truly felt alone with it - not even in Greece when she was a newlywed. It must be so different for a woman like Metella. She made no mention of her husband or father in her introduction - there was no use throwing the weight of her husband's recently finished term as Consul around - it didn't matter at all in a place like this, after all. That thought would probably baffle the men in her life, but when faced with the prospect of death in childbed, who was married to who and what position they held were utterly irrelevant; all that mattered was the will of the Gods.

She studied the woman a little more and let out a sigh, her voice soft, "There is only so much worrying one can do," She offered, "Before you have to accept that everything is in the hands of the Gods." She really should take her own advice. "Should we walk up?" she offered, indicating the winding path leading up the slope.

 

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Metella could see the recognition in the woman's eyes.

"I know Cassius Longinus well. He is a close friend of my husband. They served together in Britannia, and he often calls round to our domus. Horatia Justina." 

Oh. Oh. Of course. The consul's wife. Even Metella knew that. Longinus talked enough about his friends that it finally clicked, even with most of her mind occupied with her own life for a change. Metella smiled in recognition too. "A pleasure to meet you, domina." Even if they had probably met before, at some visit, where Metella had been too busy coralling Cassia to really pay attention.

"There is only so much worrying one can do. Before you have to accept that everything is in the hands of the Gods. Should we walk up?"

Everything was in the hands of the gods. Metella just hoped their grace would extend to her as well, since her own gods were very, very far away to help.

Metella nodded, getting up from the bench. After some hesitation, she offered a hand to help Horatia up.

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She saw the recognition in Metella's face and smiled in return, nodding. She was grateful the younger woman didn't make a fuss. Horatia had always loathed being the centre of attention - the shadows were where she thrived, which was often at odds over the last year with being married to the premier Consul. 

As the other woman stood, Horatia braced herself to join her but gratefully accepted the help, placing her palm in the other woman's and moving to stand. Almost immediately she wished she didn't as pain encircled her back and her bump, enough to make her double over. She gasped and winced, instinctively winding her spare hand around her middle. The sitting down had evidently been masking the comings and goings of her pain to enough of a degree that she could pretend it was just another backache, or a product of her walking up this slope this far along in her pregnancy. Standing now though, that was evidently not the case. She screwed her eyes shut and bit her lip. It was two weeks too early, but predicting the date of childbirth had never been an exact science. She let out an unsteady breath as the pain subsided. She had to make her offering. She couldn't go through this, even if it was imminent, without paying one last prayer. It was a ludicrous suggestion, but Horatia felt another wave of terror wash over her which drowned out her usually sharp rationality. 

"Come," She choked, pretending the pains hadn't happened and that she was fine, "It's not far." She let go of Metella's hand and wobbled a few steps up the path.

 

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Metella helped Horatia stand, but she immediately swayed, in obvious pain. Oh. Oh no. Metella's eyes widened as she watched her grasp her belly and breathe deep. How far along was she? What was happening?...

"Come. It's not far."

"Domina, are you sure you are alright?" Metella ventured, not daring to let go of Horatia's hand. If the consul's wife collapsed on her watch, there would be an all-out shit show. Juno, help me. "You look like you are in pain..."

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"I'm fine." Horatia breathed. You're not fine, you're in labour Horatia and Gods know how long you've been in labour and ignoring it. "It's just an ache, it will die down. You have all of this to look forward too." She managed to joke as she took a few steps up the path a little further. The Temple seemed like miles away, even when it could surely only be a few hundred yards. 

"How far along are you?" she asked to the other woman, desperately trying to distract herself. Her fingers were trembling but whether that was through fear or exertion she didn't know. She had done all she could do. The letters to Aulus, her children, siblings and father were safely in her office. Her bodyslave had the key to the box and had instructions to open it should she not survive the birth. She'd prayed so dutifully every week, and asked for guidance. She'd done all she could do. "Everything will be fine..." She breathed, although whether that was to the woman or herself it wasn't clear. "I...I just need to get to the temple." but she could feel another pain building and hurried her steps.

 

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"I'm fine. It's just an ache, it will die down. You have all of this to look forward too." 

Metella wrinkled her nose, forgetting about being polite for a moment. She did not look forward to any of that, she knew that already. She had been there when Cassia was born. Mostly handing things to the midwife, and running around for towels and water and whatnot, but she did remember the whole yelling and crying and bleeding part. Right now, however, she was feeling more annoyed about this stubborn woman denying her pain.

"How far along are you?"

"Um... two months, maybe? It... must have happened before Saturnalia." that was her best guess, anyway. Damn Attis, and his frequent visits to her bed. 

Horatia's hand was shaking, and her steps were unsure.

"Everything will be fine... I...I just need to get to the temple." 

"Excuse me, domina, you don't seem fine." she stated, but walked along anyway, letting her lean on her arm. "Let's get you to the temple." It was closer than the gates, and Juno's priestesses probably knew what the hell was to be done.

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She managed a smile to the other woman although it looked a little twisted as she tried to catch her breath. "You have a long while t-to go, and to reconcile yourself to it." It might have sounded cruel, but that was not how she intended it to sound. She knew better than most women that pregnancy wasn't always a happy occasion or a delight. She was in no mood to pretend it was thus either. 

She ignored Metella's protestations that she didn't seem fine. She wasn't a particularly skilled actress, and certainly not in her condition so her attempts to brush off her pain was falling flat. Fine. "The pains...the pains can last for days," she finally offered as Metella agreed to help her to the temple, glancing sideways at her, "There is no rush to get home."  And a litter ride back half-way across the city to the domus seemed dreadful to her, in that moment. Titus had been a long drawn out birth of several days, Calpurnia had happened quicker - from what she remembered that was - but she surely had time. Time for a prayer for herself and the woman next to her. Then she'd go home. 

"Ah..." She stumbled a bit and screwed her eyes shut firmly, squeezing the other woman's hand as another pain hit her. They were closer together than they had been, but she had plenty of time. She was confident of that, if nothing else. She had forgotten this part though, in the thirteen years since Calpurnia's birth and breathed out, barely audible; "I'm afraid." 

 

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"You have a long while t-to go, and to reconcile yourself to it. The pains...the pains can last for days,"

"Days?!" Now it was Metella's turn to go pale. Oh no. Attis was so, so dead for this. She held up Horatia and walked her towards the temple, although she was fairy sure at this point that the woman was in labor.

"There is no rush to get home."  

There was every rush to get home. But Metella hoped that the word of the priestesses would be more believable than her own. So, they continued on, to the steps leading up to the building, before Horatia stumbled again.

"Ah... I'm afraid." 

No shit.

"You have done this before" Metella pointed out, walking along and half-supporting, half-carrying Horatia. "The goddess is right here. And so are her servants."

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She had done this before and almost lost her life in the process. She choked as Metella urged her forward, supporting her weight but she couldn't walk. "S-stop." She choked and bent a the waist, placing her palms on the coloured marble of one of the columns of the temple, trying to breathe through the pains. She wanted, more than anything in that moment, to have her mother here. 

It took a few more long, painful moments before the contraction eased enough for her to stand straight and blink up at the sunlight and the temple beyond them. It sounded silent - clearly there weren't any other women here paying their respects, but Metella was right, at least there would be the priestesses. She moved to grip the younger woman's hand again and furnished her with a shaky smile. "You see? The pains pass and you feel alright." She exhaled deeply again and slowly climbed the steps, one foot in front of the other. "I...its been years," She swallowed, "Since my daughter. Thirteen." she glanced at Metella, "I...I have not had easy births." Well Titus' was fine, if not long. "But you're young, and healthy you...you will be fine." 

 

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They got to the columns and stopped. Horatia braced herself, looking very much like she was in pain. Yup, this was happening. Metella looked around, trying to see if there was someone to help, but no one was in sight. She stood by, supporting Horatia, until she was done breathing through the pain.

"You see? The pains pass and you feel alright."

Until the next one. Duh.

"I...its been years. Since my daughter. Thirteen. I...I have not had easy births."

Metella's eyebrows rose. Thirteen years?... Talk about a late child. And complicated births. Oh, damn.

"But you're young, and healthy you...you will be fine." 

Metella clicked her tongue. When things got serious, she went right back to being bossy.

"I have seven months to figure it out. You don't. Come on." It was nice of Horatia to try to console her, but she had more urgent things to take care of. Like, pushing a baby out, apparently. Metella supported her through the doors of the temple. "Salve... Hallo? We need help here!"

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She accepted Metella's help gratefully as she was ushered over the door of the temple. She should have probably taken offence to being ordered around by a slave girl, but she was in absolutely no mind to do so. Metella was being helpful, and she needed it, desperately, because she was absolutely not thinking straight. 

A small, shortish woman scurried out from the back as Metella called out and took one look at the pair of them and let out an exasperated sigh, clearly understanding what was happening. "We don't have midwives here!" She exclaimed with a shake of her head, "This is the second time this month..." She tutted but dutifully moved to take Horatia's other arm. She wasn't in the midst of a contraction but the support was still welcome. "I just need to make my prayers and then I'll go..." She breathed as she was positioned onto a chair that had been hurriedly fetched by another of the priestesses - a younger woman, eyes as wide as saucers. "My litter is down by the gates, just give me a moment to collect myself." 

 

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Someone finally made an appearance. Metella sighed a sigh of relief, but it was short-lived.

"We don't have midwives here! This is the second time this month..."

"What?" Metella stared at the woman, despite her better judgment. "Why not?"

Seriously, of all the places in Rome...

"I just need to make my prayers and then I'll go... My litter is down by the gates, just give me a moment to collect myself." 

Well, at least they got a chair. Not as helpful as a midwife, though.

"Can her... can her litter at least come up here for her? She's not going to make the walk back." Metella pointed out. "... can't you tell how... um, close she is, at least?"

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"Because we're a temple!" The older woman snapped back at Metella and stood there fretting over the two women with an unhelpful, irritated expression on her face. She understood. She shouldn't have come this heavily pregnant, it was not the priestesses of Juno's responsibility to help a woman in labour and she felt guilt mix in with the existing fear and pain. 

The woman glanced to Metella but Horatia couldn't intervene as another pain came over her; she gripped the arms of the chairs so tightly she thought they might snap. "No I can't tell, I'm not a midwife!" The woman tutted as Horatia moaned, screwing her eyes shut and swallowing. How long had she been in labour and not realised it...or purposefully ignored it? The pains were closer together than she expected...it was happening far too fast. "I-I am Horatia Justina. I-I'm..." She breathed, "I'm the wife of A-Aulus Calpurnius Praetextatus..." she sucked in another breath, "First Consul of this city last year, and you w-will send word to my h-husband and y-you will let my litter come to collect me and you will help me to my k-knees to pray and you will respect this woman." She gestured to Metella. Even in agony, Horatia's voice was forceful and her glare was directed straight to the woman who was being beyond unhelpful. "Am I understood?" 

 

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"No I can't tell, I'm not a midwife!"

Metella glared back at the priestess. This was probably a bad thing to do, in the damn temple where she was supposed to pray to the goddess for help. Then again, it was not the goddess' fault if her priestess was a bitch. "She's the wife..."

"I-I am Horatia Justina. I-I'm... I'm the wife of A-Aulus Calpurnius Praetextatus... First Consul of this city last year, and you w-will send word to my h-husband and y-you will let my litter come to collect me and you will help me to my k-knees to pray and you will respect this woman. Am I understood?" 

The effect of Horatia's words was spectacular. Both priestesses had their mouth open in shock. That's right, you are in this now. Even Metella felt a wave of respect for Horatia.

Finally the younger priestess hurried out of the temple, no doubt going for the litter. The elder one still stared.

"She will pray in private. You may leave us." Metella decided. The priestess bristled, but being stared down by two stubborn pregnant women eventually worked, and she sulked out of the room. Metella let out a sigh, turning back to Horatia. "You may pray, but I will look. Because you don't want to give birth in a litter... Has your water broken yet?"

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The reaction from the two priestesses was priceless and Horatia would have enjoyed it had she been in less pain and in a better state of mind. As it was, she let Metella revel in it and heard the scurrying feet as they retreated - presumably to summon her litter and send a boy to inform Aulus. The pain subsided after another few long moments and she exhaled deeply, nodding at Metella. It was such a vulnerable thing for the woman to do, and she wasn't convinced - given she was with her first child she knew what she was looking at, but she knew she needed help and rather her than one of the crochety old priestesses. 

She pulled her stola up above her knees as she sat on the chair, trying to regain her breath as she gathered the luxurious fabric in her fingers. "I'm not sure," She admitted embarrassed. "Maybe..." But she had brushed off earlier as an inconvenience because of how far along she was. Wilful ignorance, that was what her mother would call this. "You will h-have my eternal thanks for this, Metella." She breathed and winced as she shuffled forward on the chair. "A-and that of my husband." What she could practically do for the girl though, to repay the kindness, she didn't know.

"Well?" She breathed.

 

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Horatia did not put up a fight. They were in this together now. It would have been hard to invent a stranger pair than the two of them, the Briton slave and the Roman patrician, both red-haired and both pregnant, from vastly different men. Maybe the goddess had her reasons.

"I'm not sure. Maybe... You will h-have my eternal thanks for this, Metella. A-and that of my husband." 

How was she not sure?!...

"Might as well get some learning in, huh" Metella smirked, getting on her knees. She was not not even sure what she was looking for, but unlike the priestesses, she was at least willing to try. "Maybe your husband could sponsor a midwife for this place..."

"Well?"

"Whoa."

Okay. Some things did not need a medicus' degree to notice. Metella surfaced, looking at Horatia over the sea of expensive fabric. "Domina, I'm sorry, but you are not going anywhere."

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