The wolves were as restless as me, night dragging on as a maddening pace. They hunted in their packs, howling and snarling towards the misty moon peeking through the window casement of my tower. I turned onto my other side, my muscles aching along my abdomen. My son was too crammed in my womb to move much anymore. The occasional spell of hiccups alerted me that he was still alive, still growing.
Soon. The midwife's murmuring rhymed with the howl as the wolves called out the word in prophecy. Soon he would be here, my son.
I clutched the prayer pendant in my palm, rubbing the edges. My weary mind wandered between prayer and bloody thoughts. Bear claws slicing Brisam's neck. The claws melding into human hands, snout shrinking into Argath's face. I tossed again, the muscles around my belly seizing.
Throwing back the bed clothes, I threw the damask dressing gown over my shift. Pressing a hand to my back, I paced towards the window. The wolves had run deeper into the forest, the snow clean and bright without any tracks larger than their dog paws. The bears weren't out tonight.
I wasn't exactly sure where Argath's chambers were in Gegar Red but I wasn't going to wait till morning. I would never sleep until I found the truth. Fear dug into my brain, hurrying my steps down the tower. If he was the one who murdered Brisam, I couldn't stay there any longer. As soon as my son was born, I would return to Highfire. Forget our play for the throne and leave them here. I could run Highfire as I had watched my husband do and Estra would raise the children. Maybe Teàrlag could stay on with us to help. I would find someway to control our destiny and protect us, stand alone as Argath had insisted I learn to do.
A deep seated pain lurched through my womb. It stopped me cold on the stairs. I shuddered, waited. Such phantom sensations had been happening for a while, they were always erratic and would fade. Nothing else so I continued. As I reached the ground floor, another racked through my body. Fear jolted into my veins.
No matter. Even if it was the time for him to come, my son would not be born until the next day. I could still find Argath and demand the truth from him. Settle my mind so that I could give birth and be gone from Gegar Red as soon as I was able.
Waddling down the hall, I made my way towards the great hall and hesitated before it's arched entryway. A figure shifted in the shadows along a faded tapestry in the room. I halted at the entrance and held my breath. The dying fire at the end of the room gleamed on the figure. Haneric's haggard silhouette flickered into sight as he moved into darkness. He paused before the stairs to the scullery. Laying a hand on a stone facing the first step, he grunted as he pushed. An angular opening appeared with a dark second set of stairs leading down. He trotted down them.
I gripped the pendant in my hand, curiosity piquing. Another hot rush of pain threaded along my belly. I evened my breaths as Teàrlag had instructed. My son wouldn't be here for many hours, there was much time. It had taken me two days to give birth to Emalia.
The floors were chilled and I wished I had thought to wear shoes. At least the cold kept my mind off the waves of pain. I peered down the steps, a faint glow at the bottom of them. I edged down the sharp incline, bracing myself with hand to the smooth walls. At the last step, I peered around the edge. Haneric was unaware of me, his back to me. There were several chests against the back of the room. The metallic clink of cold metal echoed towards me as he dug his hands into the trunk.
Stepping out into the secret dungeon, I looked around the dimly lit space. Strangely enough on the walls and floors, iron rings and neck braces were drilled into the rock. I could only guess it was one used as a hidden prison in times past. One of the chains rattled as I stubbed my bare foot against it. Another seething strip of pain gained power around my belly, distracting me from my bleeding toe. I hissed and Haneric whipped around, the light from his single candle licking the hollows of his hungry face. Though he was getting healthier, his cough less severe, he had never lost the starved look he had brought with him to Gegar Red.
He peered across the room, a wolfish grin snarling over his mouth when he recognized me. “Good, it's only you.”
A haversack sat next to him, the seams bulging. I approached carefully, focusing on my breaths. “What are you doing? What is this place?”
“They have kept it secret from you too?” He chuckled. “Your gallant protectors are less honorable than you thought it seems. Look what they have been hiding from you, sister.”
I stopped over his shoulder and peered down into the chest as Haneric waved the candle over it. Wax dripped, cooling on mounds of gold and silver coin. They gleamed seductively, stealing my breath. “Where did this come from?”
Haneric stuffed a handful of coin into the pack. “The others are just as stuffed. And not just coin but goblets, ornaments. Even a few crowns. Your groom-to-be has been collecting them. His minion, that dour looking half breed Tormod whom you have taken a fancy to, he brings saddle bags full of it from the mountains. Stolen by other Tormod thieves no doubt. Hidden from the King as they plead poverty. The Tormod haven't paid tribute to the crown in years and this is why.”
The sensation was getting stronger, ripping through my body. I crumpled into myself, breathing hard. It eased and I gripped Haneric's bony shoulder. His eyes gleamed up at me in amusement.
“The baby,” I gasped when I could.
Haneric tore his shoulder from my hand and shook his head. “Poor timing. I was going to have you ride with me back to Ignit Covert.”
“Why are you going?”
“This is enough to help me rebuild the estate three times over and they would never come after me. If they dared, I could send a message to the Vittamars at Primiad that they are hoarding Tormod gold here. It would be my civic duty, of course.”
I shook my head. “Let me speak with them first, I was on my way to find Argath-”
Haneric rose to his feet, glaring at me. I retreated a shaky step, blood chilled by his ravenous expression, his knuckles whitening as he gripped the haversack. He flashed his teeth with a knife cut of a smile, thin lips bright red as though he had been gnawing on raw flesh. “You will keep silent, Hania. You have always bossed and bullied me around since we were children. But now, it seems like I have the upper hand.”
I crippled to the floor as another contraction rocked my body. Wet seeped from between my legs, turning my shift transparent pink. My water had broken. Horror rushed into me at the realization that this birth was going much faster than my first.
“Please,” I grappled for his wrist, clutching it. “Wait. Let us speak with them. Go fetch them now, please Haneric-”
“Enough!” He tore his hand from me and threw the bag to the ground, the coins scattering across the stones. He panted, pacing the room. Hunching over, he let out a throaty growl. It was the same one I heard from the other men when they experienced the Changing. “I will not listen to this mockery, you have done nothing but shame your family! Even now, is that child truly your husband's or is it the brat of that dead squire?!”
He curled his body, muscles bulging out unnaturally, bones cracking. I recoiled from his gaze, yellow and afire with hatred. Madness deformed his face as swiftly as his bear form took hold. I pushed myself back behind the chests. I peered into the depths of it and saw the bejeweled handle of a dagger. Unsheathing it, I gripped my belly.
“Too soon!” I cried out in agony as my brother transformed fully into a savage beast.
He roared and threw a paw, marking the stones. The walls around the chains were scarred with similar digs, claw marks ripped into the ancient rock. I cowered, praying fervently to Dylene and all the gods of my husband's chapel. The bear lurched towards me, tossing it's ragged head and heaving with violence. It stopped before me, saliva dripping from its yellowed canines and roared. I cried out, sobbing for mercy.
Another massive figure hurled into the bear, crashing into the opposite wall. The two bears rose up on their hind legs, the black one swiped at the ragged beast that had once been my brother. It threw him to the floor. My eyes went to the door where Theodric appeared, his eyes wide as he watched the violent battle. His paled when he saw me by the chest of gold. Eyes on the bears as they gnashing and sunk their teeth into each others hides, he waited till there was enough space and then he bolted towards me.
“Are you harmed?” He demanded, coming alongside me.
Another contraction. I could feel the baby drop down into the growing void in my pelvis. In a few moments, he would be born. I wailed, “My son! My son will be killed, he's coming!”
“Wait, be still,” Theodric instructed, gripping my hands to him. “I will get you out of here. You must trust me.”
He grunted as he lifted me, my weight considerably more with pregnancy. The black bear peered over at us with his human eyes. A wave of recognition washed over it. It was Argath. With a furious pound, he drove his opponent into the stones and clamped a powerful jaw around it's snout. It was enough of a distraction.
Swooping me across the room, Theodric carried me up the stairs, the howls echoing up and into the great hall. We met Éibhear and Abbán racing towards the danger around the Dias.
“Éibhear, go help Argath! Haneric has gone wild,” Theodric instructed. “Abbán go fetch the midwife, the baby is coming-”
“I knew it was soon! I told you! I heard the commotion and just knew it,” Teàrlag crowed as she raced towards us. Relief flooded into me and I wept as she waved Theodric towards the door.
“Its happening so fast this time,” I managed to moan as another contraction hit.
Teàrlag chuckled, her tone as smooth as untroubled lake water. “The second one usually is, I'm certain I told you that. Your memory is going with your old age, my lady.”
Theodric ducked into the closest bed chamber and hefted me onto the bed. It was the same room I had woken in after I was poisoned by Tulin Odovacar. Teàrlag took his place beside me as Theodric jumped over to the hearth and started a fire.
“Mistress Teàrlag, I have only seen one other birth. Are they all this panicked?” Theodric scoffed shrilly, as he lit a bundle of kindling.
Teàrlag laughed, “No, these have been special births. For special children, in my opinion.”
“W-will you PLEASE stop talking!” I howled, gripping the sheets. Their chattering was so damned distracting. I needed to push, the urge heaving through my body.
“Now remember, calm even breaths.” Teàrlag reminded me and I obeyed.
Getting in control of my body was key. Gripping my knees, I forced myself to count my inhales and exhales, focusing on the amount of seconds and not the pain. Theodric stood by the hearth, eyes darting nervously from the door to us.
“Do you need me to help-” he whispered warily.
“Out, out, OUT! I want him OUT!” I bellowed, rearing up on my elbows, hair flying around my shoulders and eyes wide.
I didn't need to say it twice. As Theodric left the room, Estra appeared at the end of the bed. She took one of my hands and glanced towards Teàrlag. The midwife nodded.
“It's time, dear one.” The old woman cooed, helping me off the bed to my feet.
I moaned and swayed. Estra stood in front of me gripping my arms as I crouched. Teàrlag held her hands out under me. My mind, drunk with pain and the need for release, vaguely acknowledged that this time around was much easier than Emalia's birth. Despite what had happened to me in the secret chamber below the great hall. None of the frenzied terror like a trapped animal and excessive blood from my first birth. I was the master of my body, complete control was mine in that moment. I had never felt more powerful in my life.
“There he is! That's his head!” Teàrlag called out.
I gave one primal roar from deep in my gut and it was done. His crying filled the room immediately, robust and healthy, something that hadn't happened with Emalia. I wept as I collapsed forward into Estra's arms.
“Dylene be praised,” I panted, “A boy, right?”
The babe was still crying but Teàrlag was silent.
“A boy?” My voice pitched.
“Yes, yes, dear one, it's a boy,” she murmured as Estra helped me onto the bed.
I wiped my eyes and blinked over at her as Estra managed to prop me up on the pillows. Teàrlag was about to wrap a blanket around the squirming, plump baby but I held out my arms.
“No! Let me see my son!” I demanded.
Teàrlag bit her wrinkled bottom lip and walked over. She laid the squalling bundle in my arms. A boy with golden red fuzz along his perfect head, face red with exertion. My eyes traveled down to his legs. My heart dropped.
Only one foot. One perfectly formed foot. The other leg was missing from the knee down as though it had never been there.
A crippled King, was it possible?
“Teàrlag!” Abbán burst the door open, panting and covered in blood.
We blinked over, the only sound was the babe whimpering as he calmed down in my arms.
“What is it, boy?” Teàrlag walked towards him, wiping her hands on her apron.
“We need you now. Its bad, very bad.” A muscle in his cheek twitched and his voice broke. Abbán glanced towards Estra, his desperate look speaking volumes. She paled white as snow. “It's Éibhear.”ns 18.104.22.168da2