By the time we arrived at the ruins of Rhydderhall I had forgotten we had a destination at all. The tunnels let out north of the city, and near the Bandui. We’d crossed the river in the same little boat Trinh and his knights had used when they first returned in secret to Dalyn. The children were in cold stupors, and Quill was all but carrying Hesperide when we stumbled down the remote lane to Rhydderhall. Namal and Baldric were waiting for us in the desolate little garden outside the kitchen, presumably alerted to our approach by sentries. Their eyes went wide as we dragged ourselves in, the sky graying to dawn behind us.
Baldric took one look at Hesperide’s pinched face and darted forward to scoop her into his arms. She sagged against his hulking body as he turned and rushed her into the ruined house. We followed slowly, unable to muster any enthusiasm to cover that last few steps with anything resembling speed. Quill lifted Naran from my arms and I was too tired to protest that I could carry him.
Namal swept his gaze over us, taking in the extra tiny beings bundled in miscellaneous fabric and the blood frozen to our clothes. I could see him putting all the pieces together. We were alive, walking, and he knew exactly why we had so many children with us. He turned and gestured us to follow, “Come, there is water and a little food.”
“Did you have any trouble?” asked Trinh, his voice gravelly with exhaustion.
“Nothing we couldn’t handle,” replied Namal. “We set the horses loose well away from here and made good time over bare ground. The men are covering your trail from the main road. We should be able to rest the day, at least. If the cold masks our scent.”
As we entered the narrow stairwell down to the old wine cellar a woman’s groan floated up to greet us. Fantasies of curling up someplace warm to sleep for a few hours vanished like little puffs of breath on a cold wind. I should not have been surprised.
Trinh finished the stairs in two leaps—impressive with the pack on his back and the child in his arms. Namal and Rakov were right behind him, but Quill didn’t bother to rush. He knew already, of course. He’d been her walking stick for the last few hours. My feet were dragging as I closed the cellar door behind us and descended last.
“She’s in labor,” Baldric was standing in gap in the furniture wall that split the room, holding a steadying hand out to Trinh. The rightful king looked very much like he should be holding a giant sword in his fists instead of a heavily bundled child. He stared blankly at Baldric a moment before all the action drained out of him, leaving him with a dazed expression.
I had never been anywhere near a woman in labor—and though the cooks at Galhara were very educational human beings. I looked around the cellar. A few lit candles showed that it was as we’d left it. It was, while not warm exactly, warmer than it was outside. A couple of Trinh’s knights were standing on one side of the room, rumpled blankets on the floor behind them as if they’d been trying to rest before we arrived.
“I don’t think it will be long, now,” continued Baldric.
“Her labor started when running in the tunnels,” said Quill very quietly.
She hadn’t said a word or made a sound. Tears stung my eyes.
“We have to risk a fire,” I said, “We’ll need hot water.” Babies needed cleaning, if nothing else. We needed heat, too, and there were plenty of wounds which also needed attention if we were to survive long enough to escape.
Two of the knights sprang to action, darting past me and up the cellar stairs into the dawn.
I slung my pack off my shoulder, dropping it with a heavy thunk next to the lone table before opening it to fish out Boitumelo’s satchel. Satchel in hand, I headed behind the make shift wall. Hess was hunched over, back propped against the cold stone wall, her head in her hands. Her underthings were already in a pile next to her and her dress was hiked over her knees. A knight was crouched beside her, stroking her hair. I blinked in surprise when I realized the knight was a woman. She was dressed in warm clothes reinforced with leather armor. Her hair was restrained in a long dark braid. She turned to look at me when I entered, her chin dipped, “Your Highness.” She was a few years older than me. Her face was not delicate, but she had a fearsome sort of beauty with thin lips and large dark eyes.
My steps slowed as I approached. “I don’t remember you,” I said. Too tired, apparently, for manners.
She gave me a small smile, as if I’d revealed her greatest secret. “I am Athrynel Hasreda, the King’s Marksman.”
Pausing, I looked at her again, remembering the hail of arrows which held the Nether Queen’s soldiers back while Quill and I leapt into the river. I met her eyes, “You probably saved our lives.”
Her smiled broadened a little. “You’re welcome.”
I opened the satchel, surveying the contents as if I had any idea what I was looking for. Athrynel stood and came to look over my shoulder. “Do you know how to use this?” she asked, eyeing the kit.
“For wounds,” I replied, helplessly. “I grew up during a war.”
Hess moaned again and my eyes flew to her. She still had her head in her hands.
“Well, I wouldn’t expect you’d learn midwifery in peacetime either,” Athrynel clucked and crouched to sift through the satchel.
She pulled a couple bottles out, then pushed the rest of the satchel back to me. “Most of the men have one scratch or another, do what you can. I’ll stay with Hestria. You find me some blankets or something and hurry them up on that fire.”
“Do you know anything about midwifery?” I asked, picking up the satchel and gladly moving away.
“No,” Athrynel turned back to Hess. “But I helped a cow once, long ago. And someone will fetch Gyreon off patrol. He picked up some of his father’s physician trade before deciding war was easier.”
I didn’t know who Gyreon was and wasn’t sure how much help he’d be if he’d left doctoring because he preferred fighting. Perhaps still more helpful than me. I returned to rest of the cellar to find that Trinh had recovered somewhat from his shock. He and his knights were busy unwinding children from their individual bundles, chafing cold little hands back to warmth, and rearranging the clothes and blankets into a den where they could tuck all the children together for maximum warmth. I stole one of the blankets, and as an afterthought pulled the servant’s warm clothes out of my pack, carrying it all back to Athrynel and Hess. As I left them, a knight came barreling down the cellar stairs and straight past me to Hess. Gyreon, I guessed.
Ayglos was sitting at the table, his wounded arm hanging limp. I started pulling things out of the satchel. “Namal, help him take the uniform off.”
Namal joined us in the puddle of candlelight and helped Ayglos unfasten the buttons of the uniform and shrug it off his good shoulder. Ayglos leaned forward and just gritted his teeth as Namal peeled the blood stiff jacket off the wounded shoulder and down the arm. Domjoa would not be pleased we’d destroyed his expensive fake uniform. The shirt underneath was thoroughly dried to Ayglos’s skin, and after prying at it we decided to wait for water.
While we worked, the door opened again, and another knight came down the stairs. I was surprised to see another woman, this one with short, dirty blonde hair, wearing the same sort of clothes and armor as Athrynel. She carried a bundle of wood in her arms. She scanned the room till she found Trinh, and said, “We’ve got a little fire going, and I found a pot for boiling water. I think we should consider building a fire down here so the babes don’t catch their death.”
The knights had wrapped themselves in their cloaks and alighted around the bed of children like migratory birds. Hew was burrowed in the center of them, his nose and his tail just visible amongst the folds and mounds.
“There’s no chimney,” protested one of the knights.
“We could use the stairwell,” countered another.
“And leave poor Jasem and Rae’d stranded on patrol all day?” teased a third.
Trinh jumped in, “Jasem could jump over the fire—and Rae’d is very lucky, I’m sure he’d be fine.”
Gruff laughter rumbled through the flock of knights.
I dragged my eyes to Trinh, surprised to see a smile teasing at his mouth.
“The bigger problem is we’ll have to jump to get out,” someone said.
“Better rest up, then.” The blonde smiled and dumped her armload of wood right next to the stairs.
Quill emerged from the huddle to help the blonde set up a make shift hearth just a foot away from the stairs, and to prop the door at the top of the stairs so it stayed open wide enough to lure the smoke out.
While we waited, I laid out astringent, salve, and the few bandages we still had. Namal hunted down the pitcher and basin we’d used last time we were here. Then we sat shredding a sheet from the villa into long strips. Who knew cloth would become so precious to us?
And while we waited, Hess’s moans became cries.
Quill had just coaxed the flame to life when the blonde left again and returned carrying a steaming pot. She edged around the fledgling fire and brought the pot to the table, filling the pitcher and basin I’d set out. She took the pitcher and headed behind the furniture wall.
Then, like the bells of the Cathedral calling worshippers to prayer, the squalling of a baby filled the cellar, reverberating off the stone walls. We all stopped to listen. Relief blossomed so tangibly from the cluster in the blankets that I turned to look at them. Soft voices slowly soothed the crying behind the wall. Quill left the fire and went to stand hesitantly in the opening. Tarr should be here. Trinh was staring, obviously feeling responsible, but also uncertain what his role should be. Quill was family by blood. After a moment, Quill disappeared into the back.
I turned away and soaked a rag in the basin—the water was warm, but I doubted it had been boiled. I added a splash of astringent and set to work on Ayglos’s shoulder, wetting the shirt enough to peel it away, then off entirely. The throwing knife had left behind a fairly small slit, but it was deep. I cleaned the wound as gently as I could before pasting it with salve and awkwardly wrapping bandages around his entire shoulder and across his chest to get them to stay. Ayglos had a few other nicks and slashes, and I treated them all. He bore the sting with a few hisses, and Namal helped him re-dress with clothes Quill and I had brought from the apartment.
I did my best to clean out the cloth and Namal took away the basin to dump the water and refill it with clean water.
“Who’s next?” I asked the room.