The great hall was more brightly lit than I had ever seen it. Torches lined the walls and a fire roared in the hearth, glinting off the silver cutlery and goblets on the dais. I hadn't realized I was late coming down till I looked around and saw everyone present. Emalia was already in bed, Teàrlag watching over her and allowing Estra to attend the meal.
The high table was occupied on both sides as there were few in attendance. Éibhear and Abbán sat at the far end with Estra, laughing as they filled their plates. Argath sat next to them, diagonal from from me as I took a seat, my hands shaking with what Teàrlag had just told me.
“You look troubled sister,” Haneric commented wryly across from me as he took a drink from his goblet.
I ignored him. Theodric and Tulin were in deep discussion next to me. I gripped my hands in my lap, eyes boring into my plate. The reason why I had traveled this path was for protection. Initially, I had only been concerned for my own safety, though I hadn't realized it at the time. I never thought Emalia would be thrown into the path of greedy men looking to auction her off for their own gain. I would never allow my daughter to be sold in marriage as I had been. They would only get away with it by killing me first.
“Lady Hania, you look flushed.” Argath lifted his cup to me.
Tulin peered down the table. “No doubt you are weary. A little wine may help.”
Absently, I reached towards my goblet and took a strong pull. I exhaled, settling my eyes on Argath. Silently, he crooked an heavy, black eyebrow at me. I ignored his soundless question and let the watered wine warm my blood. I needed to be calm when I spoke.
Theodric cleared his throat and the small party quieted. I didn't look over where he sat next to me but sat frozen with my gaze on my goblet.
“I cannot tell you how happy I am to be back in my own halls,” he crowed, his tone ringing with Sidimund's arrogance. I cringed at the sound. “I've been gone so long, I almost forgot my way home, got us lost on the roads.”
“Its true!” Tulin cackled, the table responding in the same except for Argath who still watched me.
I swayed in my seat and took another drink. The wine was good, my senses becoming fluid. I could think clearly, I could almost the see the words I could hurl at them for trying to steal my daughter.
“I am also happy to be home and await the birth of two new children, my father's children. After a year of so much death, new life is coming back into the house of Vultuff-”
“Even if one is a bastard,” Haneric drawled, his lazy lizard gaze sweeping the table with self importance. He furrowed his forehead and smirked as Éibhear rose slightly from his chair, shielding his sister. Argath pressed a calm hand to the younger man's shoulder and the moment quieted.
Theodric coughed into his fist. “We are also happy to make another announcement this evening-”
“I believe I will take that honor, Theodric,” I snarled, rising to my feet and lifting my goblet. Theodric paused in confusion, an awkward chuckle escaping his lips. Tulin leaned forward, watching me closely. I ignored them both and continued. “I wanted to announce that this baby, this last child of Sidimund Vultuff and the only grandson of my father, Ricimer Sigsar, will be a son. A son that will be the next King of Arven.”
An uncomfortable silence fell. A wave of weakness fell over me and my eyelids drooped. I gripped the table. Something was wrong. A strange heat was bearing down on me. Eyes swimming, my gaze fell on Argath. He was calm as ever and it gave me strength.
Tulin rose to his feet next to Theodric. “My lady, we are thankful you are in good health and spirits, but how would you know-”
“I have seen it,” I laughed loud and the sound filled the vaulted ceiling above, “a vision I was given as a girl from the goddess Dylene. She has foretold to me that I will have a son that will take the throne. He will rule-” I stepped backwards, trying to focus on my words. It was getting so hard. Hard to breathe, hard to stay upright. “He will be the bear king and forge a new dynasty from the old. And none will be able to touch me or mine again-”
I tripped and fell forward into the table, spilling my goblet. As the wine spilled, a smell from the liquor invaded my senses. I had not sensed it earlier. Drugged, poisoned. I knew enough about plant lore from midwifery to recognize something deadly. Fear coursed into my veins and I regained some control from the adrenaline. Next to me, Abbán reached out and picked me up off the table, wrapping an arm around my shoulders. I looked over at Tulin. A hint of a smile betrayed the shock on his face.
“He has poisoned me,” I gasped. “He has killed me as he killed the queen!”
The room rose in voices and swift movements. My eyes blacked out then faded to gray, the world forming before them again. Shouts turned to snarls and then growls. An unearthly roar.
A body heavy with fur formed though I could not see which of the men underwent the Change. It lunged towards Tulin Odovacar.
Teeth flashed and the man's throat was shredded, blood mixing with the spilled wine on the table. I lost consciousness as the poison overwhelmed my body.
The blackness was pierced by the sharp, faraway cry of an infant. I bolted upright from my sheets with a ragged intake of breath, feeling as though I had been held underwater. My hand went to my middle. It was too soon for the child, he would die. If he died, so would I. It couldn't be his newborn wail.
A shift of movement and a tiny fist pressed against my palm from under my skin. I blinked away the shades of gray in my eyesight and felt my belly. He was still, growing, heart beating. My son, the future Bear King of Arven was still alive inside me.
“Lay down, my lady,” a voice growled beside me.
I peered over in the bright firelight. I didn't recognize the room I was in. Shifting underneath the bed clothes, I found Argath standing at the mantel. He wasn't looking at me, rather staring into the flames.
“What happened?” I croaked.
“We should never have brought him here.”
“Odovacar? Is he-”
“Dead.” Argath pivoted towards me, tapping his thick fingers on the hilt of his sword. “Theodric is traveling back to Primiad with his body as we speak.”
Argath snorted and sat down in the chair by the bed. “He was mauled by a bear.”
I leaned back on my pillows, folding my arms across my chest. “And is that what we will tell his family?”
“Of course. This area is known for it's beasts. And all who were present at the meal are loyal to us. No one will betray you, my lady.”
“Was I poisoned?”
Argath leaned back in the chair, his fists clenching. “Yes, but thankfully Abbán and Teàrlag were able to recognize what did it and how to find an antidote. If they hadn't been present, you surely would have died.”
“It seems I owe a good deal to your people.”
“It does seem that way,” he replied, a rare smile washing across his face though he still didn't look at me.
Again, the cry of an infant echoed down the hall. I realized I was on the second floor, far from my tower bedroom. “Is that a baby I hear?”
“In the midst of Tulin being torn to pieces and you nearly dying, Estra went into labor. It was a quick delivery. Abbán and Teàrlag were so preoccupied with you, you'll never believe who attended the birth.” I quirked my chin as he peered up at me with a wry grin. “Theodric.”
I gaped back at him. “How did he manage that?”
“Quite well actually. I held the lady's hand while Theodric caught the babies-”
I held up a hand and blinked at him. “Babies? More than one?”
“Twins run in Estra and Éibhear's family. One boy and one girl.”
This was something that had never occurred in my visions. I settled back into the pillows behind me. “And they are both well?”
“Yes, healthy and wailing through the night as expected. She has named the boy Ebben for her brother, a less obvious Tormod version of the name at least.”
I nodded. “And the girl?”
“Riona. For their mother. Emalia is overjoyed, she has three new siblings instead of just two.”
“Three,” I murmured running my hand over my abdomen. It would be another two months at least, if everything was still well. “Did Teàrlag say about my son...that he is still healthy?”
Poison could have spilled into my womb, invaded his premature systems and left him forever marred. I shuddered, fear of the unknown rushing into my head. What if what happened with the poison had changed everything?
Before my imagination could get the best of me, Argath's hand moved out of the corner of my eye. He reached out and gently laid his palm over my stomach. The warmth from his skin seeped through my nightshift. The child moved, kicking out viciously.
Argath gave a growl of a laugh. “He is healthy. His spirit is strong.”
Without thinking, I placed my hand over his and studied the jump of skin where the babe moved.
“He will look to you, I think.” The words left my mouth before I could stop them like a prophecy. As I do, I finished the thought to myself, surprised by the realization.
He pulled his hand back and stood, clasping them at his back and pacing towards the door. “I will send Teàrlag in the look after you. Sleep now, Lady Hania. You will be safe for this winter.”
Alone again, I laid back and closed my eyes to the chaos of our reality. Such a ragged world to bring a child into at that moment. But somehow, I wasn't afraid anymore.ns184.108.40.206da2