Excerpt from The Serpent's Tale by Ariana Franklin, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Serpent's Tale

By Ariana Franklin

The Serpent's Tale
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2008,
    384 pages.
    Paperback: Feb 2009,
    416 pages.

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"Mountains?" Gyltha had said once. "Don't hold with mountains. They buggers do get in the way."

Besides, this was now the homeland of the child in her arms, and therefore infinitely beloved.

But today, Adelia dared not indulge either her eyes or her mind for her baby's sake. There was another child to be saved, and be damned if she was going to let it die through her own ignorance. Or the mother, either.

Silently apologizing to the little thing in her arms, Adelia set herself to envisaging the corpses she'd dissected of mothers who'd died with their fetuses yet undelivered.

Such pitiable cadavers, yet when they were laid out on the marble table of the great autopsy hall in Salerno, she'd withheld compassion from them, as she'd learned to do with all the dead in order to serve them better. Emotion had no place in the art of dissection, only clear, trained, investigative reasoning.

Now, here, in a whiskery little hut on the edge of the civilized world, she did it again, blanking from her mind the suffering of the woman on the bed and replacing it with a map of interior organs, positions, pressures, displacements. "Hmm."

Hardly aware she was doing it, Adelia withdrew her baby from her left, now empty, breast and transferred it to the other, still calculating stresses on brain and navel cord, why and when suffocation occurred, blood loss, putrefaction . . . "Hmm."

"Here, missis. Summat's coming." The daughter was guiding her mother's hands toward the bridle that had been tied to the bed head.

Adelia laid her child back in its basket, covered herself up, and went to the bottom of the bed.

Something was indeed emerging from the mother's body, but it wasn't a baby's head, it was a baby's backside.

Goddamn. A breech birth. She'd suspected it but, by the time she'd been brought in, engagement in the uterus had taken place and it was too late to insert her hand and revolve the fetus, even if she'd had the knowledge and daring.

"Ain't you going to tug it out?" the daughter asked.

"Not yet." She'd seen the irreparable damage caused by pulling at this stage. Instead, she addressed the mother. "Now you push. Whether you want to or not, push."

Mistress Reed nodded, put part of the bridle in her mouth, clamped her teeth on it, and began pushing. Adelia gestured to the girl to help her drag the mother's body farther down the bed so that her buttocks hung over the edge and gravity could play its part.

"Hold her legs straight. By the ankles, behind me, behind me, that's right. Well done, mistress. Keep pushing." She herself was on her knees, a good position for delivering—and praying.

Help us, Lord.

Even so, she waited until a navel appeared with its attached cord. She touched the cord gently—a strong pulse. Good, good.

Now for it.

Moving quickly but with care, she entered her hand into the mother's cavity and released one leg, then the other, flexing the tiny knees.

"Push. Push, will you."

Oh, beautiful, sliding out by themselves without having to be pulled were two arms and a torso up to the nape of the neck. Supporting the body with one hand, Adelia laid the other on the little back and felt the tremor of a pulse.

Crucial now. Only minutes before suffocation set in. God, whichever god you are, be with us now.

He wasn't. Mistress Reed had lost strength, and the baby's head was still inside. "Pass over that pack, that pack." In seconds, Adelia had extracted her dissection knife, always kept clean.

"Now." She placed the daughter's hand on Mistress Reed's pubic region. "Press." Still supporting the little torso, she made a cut in the mother's perineum. There was a slither and, because the knife was still in her fingers, she had to catch the baby in the crook of her elbows.

Reproduced with permission of Putnam Publishing. Copyright © 2008 by Ariana Franklin All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission.

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