The cramping startled Leesha awake.
Ten days on the road surrounded by an escort of five thousand Cutters had gotten her used to discomfort. She could only sleep on her side now, something the carriage bench was not designed for. She had taken to curling on the floor like Amanvah and Sikvah in their carriage full of pillows.
Waves of pain washed over her as her uterine muscles tightened and contracted, readying themselves for the task to come. Leesha wasn’t due for another thirteen weeks, but it was common for women to experience this.
And every one of them panics the first time, Bruna used to say. Even me, though I’d smacked dozens of squalling babes into the world before I grunted out one of my own.
Leesha began breathing in a quick steady rhythm to calm herself and help endure the pain. Pain was nothing new these days. The skin of her stomach was blackened and bruised from fetal blows delivered with frightening strength.
Several times during the pregnancy, Leesha had been forced to channel powerful ward magic in defense of her own life or others. Each time, the baby reacted violently. So violently Leesha had refrained from channeling magic at all since the Battle of Angiers. The only magics she used now were passive ones, bound to items insulated from her body to prevent feedback.
The effects of magical feedback were largely positive. Brief exposure could speed healing, granting inhuman strength and stamina. Over time feedback made the old shed years like a winter coat, and brought the young to physical primacy before their time.
But there were risks. Magic heightened emotions and lessened control. Folk in the throes of magic could be impulsive. Violent. Dangerous.
What might such power do to a child not fully formed? At 27 weeks, Leesha looked and felt full term. She anticipated an early delivery, even welcomed it, lest the child grow too large for natural birth.
Or punch through my womb and crawl out on its own. Leesha breathed and breathed, but she did not calm, nor the pain subside.
All sorts of things can bring a set of contractions, Bruna taught. Like the brat kicking a full bladder.
Leesha found the chamber pot, but relieving herself did little to ease the spasms, or the deep, crippling ache that followed in their wake. She glanced at the porcelain. Her water was clouded and bloody.
She froze, mind racing as she stared at the pot. But then the baby kicked hard. She cried out in pain, and she knew.
It was coming.
* * * * *
Leesha had propped herself on the carriage bench by the time Wonda came knocking. It was nearly dawn.
Wonda handed her reins to Bekka, rolling off her horse as nimbly as a cat. She landed on the lip of the moving carriage and opened the door, effortlessly swinging onto the bench across from Leesha.
“Almost home, Mistress, if ya wanna warsh a bit,” Wonda said. “Gar rode on ahead while ya slept. Just got word back.”
“How bad is it?” Leesha asked, trying to keep the fear from her voice.
“Bad,” Wonda said. “Whole staff’s turned out. Gar tried to stop it like ya asked. Said it was like trying to pull a stump bare-handed.”
“Angierians and their ripping ceremony.” Leesha grimaced. She was beginning to understand how Duchess Araine could walk past a cloud of bowing and curtseying servants while pretending not to see them at all. Sometimes it was the only way to get where you meant to go.
“Ent just maids and guards,” Wonda said. “Half the town council’s turned up.”
“Night,” Leesha put her face in her hands.
“Give the word and I can have a wall of Cutters shuttle ya right inside,” Wonda said. “Tell everyone yu’ll see them when yu’ve had yur rest.”
Leesha shook her head. “This is my homecoming as countess. I won’t begin it by shunning everyone.”
“Ay, Mistress,” Wonda said.
“I need to tell you something, Wonda,” Leesha said. “But you must remain calm when I do.”
Wonda gave a confused look, then her eyes widened. She began to rise.
“Wonda Cutter, you keep your bottom on that bench.” Leesha swung her finger like a lash, and the girl fell back.
“The contractions are sixteen minutes apart,” Leesha said, putting on as brave a face as she could. “It may be hours before the baby comes, or it might happen sooner. I’m going to be quite dependent on you today dear, so I need you to listen carefully and stay focused.”
Wonda swallowed heavily, but she nodded. “Ay, Mistress. Tell me what ya want and I’ll make it happen.”
Leesha felt a wave of relief at the words. “I will exit the carriage at a stately pace and head for the door. I will speak to one person at a time as I walk. At no time do we stop or slow.”
“Ay, Mistress,” Wonda said.
“I will openly appoint you head of my household guard,” Leesha said. “If everyone’s mustered in the yard as you say, that should be enough for you to take command and send Cutter women to secure the manse. Once they have the royal chambers secure, no one gets in save you, me, and Darsy.”
“Vika?” Wonda asked.
Leesha shook her head. “Vika will be seeing her husband for the first time in months. I won’t take that from them. There’s nothing she can do that Darsy can’t.”
“Ay, Mistress,” Wonda said.
“You’re not to tell anyone what is happening,” Leesha said. “Not the guards, not Gared, not anyone.”
“But Mistress…” Wonda began.
Leesha grit her teeth through another contraction. It was like a serpent wrapped around her belly, squeezing.
“No. One.” The words came out in a growl. “I won’t have loose talk turning this into a Jongleur’s show. I’m giving birth to Ahmann Jardir’s baby. Not everyone will wish it well, and after the birth we’ll both be… vulnerable.”
Wonda’s eyes hardened. “Not while I’m around, Mistress. Swear it by the sun.”
* * * * *
Wonda gave no sign anything was amiss when she exited the carriage, stepping into the stirrup of her moving horse as easily as she might climb a set of porch steps.
The wardlight inside the carriage dimmed in the early morning light, but it brightened as the door clicked shut. With it, the wards of silence reactivated, and Leesha let out a groan of pain.
She put one hand on the small of her back and the other under her heavy belly as she heaved herself upright. Heat wards had the kettle hot in seconds. Leesha poured steaming water on a cloth and pressed it to her face.
The reflection in the mirror was pale and hollow, dark circles beneath her eyes. Leesha longed to reach into her hora pouch, Drawing a bit of magic to give her strength through the ordeal to come, but it was too dangerous. Magic was known to send her child into wild fits. It was the last thing she wanted now.
She glanced at the powder kit, but she had never had the skill at painting her face that she had painting wards. That was her mother’s talent. She made do as best she could, brushing her hair and straightening her dress.
The roads of Cutter’s Hollow’s outer boroughs twisted and turned, following the curving shape of the greatwards she and Arlen Bales had designed. The Hollow had over a dozen boroughs now, an ever-expanding net of interconnected greatwards that pushed the demons back farther every night. Leesha knew the shape as intimately as a lover, not needing to glance out the window to know they were passing though Newhaven.
Soon they would enter Cutter’s Hollow, the capital of Hollow County and the center of the greatwards. Just two years ago, the Hollow had been a town of less than three hundred souls—barely large enough for a dot on the map. Now it was equal to any of the Free Cities.
Another contraction took her. They were getting closer, just six minutes apart now. She was dilating and could feel the child sitting lower. She breathed. There were herbs that could ease her pain, but she dare not take them until she was safely ensconced in her chambers.
Leesha peeked from the curtain, immediately regretting it as a cheer went up in response. She’d hoped to keep her homecoming quiet by arriving before dawn, but there was no quieting an escort of such size. Even at the early hour, folk crowded the streets and watched from windows as the procession wound its way home.
It was strange, thinking of Thamos’ keep as home, but it belonged to her now as Countess of Hollow County. In her absence, Darsy had turned Leesha’s cottage in the Gatherer’s Wood into the headquarters for Gatherer’s University, hopefully the first of many establishments of learning in the Hollow. Leesha would rather be there training apprentices, but there was far more she could accomplish if she took up residence in the keep.
She wrinkled her nose as the fortress came into view. It was a blocky, walled structure, built more for defensibility than aesthetics—at least on the outside. The inside was worse in some ways, lavish as a palace in a land struggling to rebuild. Both problems would have to be addressed, now that the place was hers.
The great gates of the keep were open, the road lined on either side by the remains of Thamos’ cavalry, the Wooden Lancers. There were barely fifty of them now, the others lost with the Count himself in the Battle of Docktown. They were resplendent on their great Angierian mustangs, man and horse equally stone-faced at attention. All were armed and armored, as if expecting Leesha to command them into battle at any moment.
The courtyard, too, looked mustered as much for war as a homecoming. To the left, Captain Gamon was mounted with his lieutenants before hundreds of men-at-arms, straight backed and eyes forward, heavy polearms planted on the ground, points all at precisely the same angle.
It would have been an impressive display if Gared Cutter had not been mounted next to Gamon on his gigantic Angierian mustang Rockslide. The young baron towered over the captain like an adult over a child. Behind him stood Cutters in numbers to match the Wooden Soldiers.
Courtyard right stood Lord Arther, Thamos’ First Minister and head of house, rigid in his dress uniform and spear. Next to him was Tarisa, the count’s childhood nurse who had become Leesha’s lady’s maid. Behind them the entire keep’s staff—an army in its own right—lined up no less sharply than the soldiers, uniforms clean and pressed.
It will be interesting to see what happens to those perfect ranks if I give birth in the courtyard. She smirked at the thought, but then the child kicked, and the thought no longer amused. There was a very real possibility it might happen.
Between the ranks lay an open path, running from the carriage circle to the great manse steps. Thamos had built them for grandeur, a last mountain between her and succor.
As Wonda warned, a knot of people stood at the base of the steps to the keep. Not servants and soldiers she could march by. These she would need to speak to. Rosal, Gared’s intended, and her mother. Inquisitor Hayes; Gatherers Darsy and Vika; her father Erny, and… night, even Leesha’s mother Elona, already glaring daggers at Rosal’s back. Leesha had prayed the early hour would succor her from that demon, at least.
Wonda poked her head in the door. “Ready Mistress?”
A fresh contraction ripped through her. She felt hot, sweating even in the cold winter air.
Leesha smiled, showing none of it. Her legs shook as she got to her feet, and she felt the child inch lower. “Yes, dear. Swiftly now.”
Gared and Gamon dismounted as the carriage stopped, nearly tripping over Arther as all three scrambled to be the one to offer Leesha their hand as she exited the carriage. Leesha ignored them all, clutching Wonda’s arm as she carefully descended the steps. It would not do to fall in front of the entire assembly.
“Welcome back to the Hollow, Countess Paper,” Arther said with a courtly bow. “It is a great relief to see you well. When we heard of the attack on Angiers, we feared the worst.”
“Thank you,” Leesha said as she steadied herself. All around the courtyard, there were bows and curtsies. Leesha kept her back straight, acknowledging it all with a dignified nod that would have done Duchess Araine proud.
Then she began walking. Wonda angled herself to take the lead even as she lent her support. Close behind, two meaty Cutter women followed.
Caught off guard, the cluster of men stumbled out of their path, but they recovered swiftly, scurrying after. Gamon was the first to match her pace. “My Lady, I have prepared a roster of the house guards…”
“Thank you, Captain Gamon.” Leesha felt another contraction coming. Four minutes apart now. Sweat broke out on her face as she clenched her thighs, terrified her water might break before she reached the house. “Be a dear and give it to Captain Wonda, please.”
Gamon’s eyes widened and he stopped in his tracks. “Captain Wonda?”
“I hereby appoint Wonda Cutter captain of my house guard,” Leesha said loudly, continuing to walk. “A long overdue promotion.”
Gamon hurried to catch back up. “If my command has been in some way unsatisfactory…”
Leesha smiled, wondering if she might vomit. “Not at all. Your service was exemplary, and your valor on behalf of the Hollow is without question. You will retain command of the Wooden Soldiers, but my house security will report to Captain Wonda alone. Order the men to fall out and return to their duties. We’re not expecting an attack.”
Gamon looked like he was trying to swallow a stone, but after months in Angiers not knowing if she were captive or guest, Leesha was tired of seeing Wooden Soldiers everywhere. Wonda had already hand-selected Cutters to take over the house guard, and signaled them to secure the entrance and sweep the manse.
Arther moved quickly to take the empty place as Gamon fell back, stunned. “The house staff…”
“…looks crisp and ready to start the day,” Leesha cut him off. “Let’s not keep them.” She whisked a hand, dismissing the assemblage.
“Of course, My Lady.” Arther gave a signal, and the crowd began to disperse. He looked ready to say more, but Leesha’s mother pushed her way in front, dragging her father Erny behind.
Elona was six months pregnant, but she hid it well with a low-cut gown that masked her belly and drew eyes elsewhere. As usual, men fell back from her like she was a coreling.
“My daughter, Countess of the Hollow!” Elona spread her arms, face glowing with… was that what pride looked like on her? It was terrifying if so.
“Mother, Father,” Leesha allowed each a brief embrace, trying to keep from shaking.
Elona sensed it, but she had the decency to drop her voice. “You look terrible. What’s wrong?”
“I just need to get inside and rest.” Leesha gave Wonda’s arm a squeeze, and they started moving again. Men might fear to impede Elona, but Wonda was implacable as a falling tree. Elona moved to follow, but pulled up as Erny held her back. She glared at him, but like Wonda Cutter, Leesha’s father was always on her side.
At last Leesha reached the steps. “Welcome home, Countess,” Rosal and her mother dipped into practiced curtseys.
“Emelia,” Leesha said, careful to use the woman’s proper name. “Mrs. Lacquer. I’m surprised to find you here at such an early hour.”
Gared swept in, the three of them matching pace as Leesha slowly ascended the steps. The child was moving, and she honestly wondered if she would make it to the top before she were forced to bear down.
“Count had the ladies staying here in his keep on account of propriety,” Gared said. “We can find another place…”
They need my permission to stay, Leesha realized.
“Nonsense.” Leesha winked at Rosal. “We’ve plenty of room. How would it look for an upstanding young woman like yourself to move into the Baron’s household before the wedding? A scandal!”
Gared blushed. “Preciate it. Got some papers for you to look at when you have time…”
“Send them over in the morning.” Leesha grit her teeth and ascended another step, coming face to face with Inquisitor Hayes.
The Tender bowed deeply. His acolyte Child Franq—usually inseparable from his master—was conspicuously absent. “Countess. Praise be to the Creator that you are well.”
The next carriage in line pulled up and opened its door. “Jona!” Vika cried, breaking from the receiving line to rush to her husband.
Hayes looked up, eyes widening at the sight of Tender Jona. Even through the pain, Leesha’s smile was genuine. “You’ll be pleased to know, Inquisitor, that your interim assignment to the Hollow has ended. Jona will resume leading services in Hollow County.”
“Preposterous,” the inquisitor sputtered. “I’m not going to just hand my cathedral over…”
Leesha raised an eyebrow. “Your cathedral, Inquisitor? The one in my county?” She was still climbing the steps. The manse doors were closer, but still so far.
Hayes moved with her. “Only Duke Pether can relieve me…”
Leesha cut him off, producing a letter and holding it up she he could see it bore the royal seal. “Your inquisition is over.”
“The inquisition was about more than one heretic Tender,” Hayes argued. “The question of Arlen Bales…”
“Is one you and the council of Tenders can debate all you wish back in Angiers,” Leesha said. “Shepherd Jona will minister to the Hollow’s flock.”
Hayes’ gawp was greater even than Gamon’s. “Shepherd?!”
“His Grace gave up the title when he became Duke,” Leesha said, “and there are more people in the Hollow than Angiers in any event. The Pact of the Free Cities gives our Tenders the right to form a new order.”
Unsure how to respond, the Inquisitor took the letter and fell back from Leesha’s determined march. The Duke’s decree gave her the power to choose the spiritual leader of Hollow County, but she was testing the limits by promoting Jona to Shepherd. It was a declaration of independence that would not please the Ivy Throne, but there was little they could do to stop it now that Leesha was ensconced in the Hollow once more.
Darsy moved between them at a signal from Leesha, the woman’s bulk effectively dismissing the Inquisitor. “Creator be praised, it’s good to see you Mistress.”
“You have no idea.” Leesha pulled her into an embrace, dropping her voice. “Contractions are coming every two minutes. If I’m not inside soon, I’ll be giving birth on these steps. Wonda’s sent women to secure the royal chambers.”
Darsy nodded, not missing a beat. “Want me to go on ahead, or walk you?”
Leesha felt a rush of relief. “Walk me, please.”
Darsy took her other arm, she and Wonda lending her strength for the climb. Night, were they only halfway up the steps?
Everyone glanced back as Rojer’s famed Motley Coach pulled up, gleaming white and painted with silver wards. Darsy watched curiously as Amanvah, Sikvah, and Kendall made their solemn exit.
“Mistress,” Darsy said. “Where’s Rojer?”
Leesha kept her breath a deep, steady rhythm as she pointed to the coffin a group of Cutters were pulling from the carriage.
Darsy let out a strangled cry and pulled up short. Leesha nearly overbalanced and stumbled, but Wonda caught her.
“Bottle it, Darsy,” Wonda growled. “Ent got time right now.” Darsy recovered quickly, getting them back in motion.
Amanvah left her party behind, her steps a dignified glide that nonetheless closed the gap to Leesha with frightening speed. One look in her eyes was all Leesha needed.
“Countess Leesha,” the dama’ting began when she caught up.
“Not now, Amanvah,” Leesha increased her pace. Just a few steps left.
Amanvah ignored her, stepping in close. Wonda reached out to bar her way, but the dama’ting put a knuckle into the arm and it fell away long enough for her to pass.
“I must assist the birth,” she said without preamble.
“Core you will,” Darsy growled.
“I have cast the dice, Mistress,” Amanvah said quietly. “If I am not with you in the coming hours, you will die.”
“That some kinda threat?” Wonda’s voice was low and dangerous.
“Stop it, all of you,” Leesha said. “She comes.”
“I can do anything…” Darsy began.
Leesha groaned, feeling the need to bear down. “There’s no time.”
Tarisa was waiting at the top. The woman needed only a glance to see what was happening.
“This way,” Tarisa turned on her heel and opened the doors, snapping her fingers at a group of maids waiting in the entryway. They scurried to her as she walked, and like a general, Tarisa sent them running off with instructions.
Leesha knew word would spread quickly now, but there was nothing to be done for it. She kept all her focus on breathing and putting one foot in front of the other.
The moment they left the great hall, Wonda signaled the guards. They closed ranks as the big woman swept Leesha up into her arms like a child, carrying her the rest of the way.
* * * * *
“Push,” Darsy said.
It was a pointless request. Leesha could feel the baby moving the moment they had her propped on the edge of the bed. It was coming whether she pushed or not. She was fully dilated, her water broken all over Wonda’s fine wooden armor. It would be over in moments.
But then the child thrashed, and she cried out in pain. Darsy, too, gave a cry, seeing Leesha’s stomach distend as tiny hands and feet thrust into the lining. It felt like a demon inside her, trying to claw its way free. Fresh bruises were forming atop the faded ones all over her abdomen.
“Can you see it?” Leesha demanded.
Darsy sucked in a breath and moved back between the makeshift stirrups. “No, Mistress.”
Corespawn it. She was so close.
“Help me up,” she said, gripping Wonda’s hand. “It will be easier if I squat.” She bore down, trying to squeeze the child free.
Again the child struck, hitting her like a horse’s kick. Leesha screamed and stumbled, but Wonda caught her, easing her back to the pillows.
“It is as I feared,” Amanvah said. “Mistress, I must cut the child free.”
Wonda immediately interposed herself. “Not a chance.”
Darsy rose, the large woman towering over tiny Amanvah. “Not if you were the last Gatherer in the world.”
“Leesha vah Erny am’Paper am’Hollow,” Amanvah said. “By Everam and my hope of Heaven, I swear to you, the only chance you have to survive this night is for me to cut you.”
Wonda had her knife in hand now, and Leesha knew how fast the woman could use it.
But then Amanvah did something shocking. The proud princess of the Kaji dropped to her knees, put her hands on the floor and pressed her forehead between them.
“By the blood we share, Mistress. Please. Ala needs you. Sharak Ka needs you. You must believe me.”
“Blood you share?” Darsy asked. “What in the Core…?”
“Do it,” Leesha growled as the thrashing continued.
“You can’t mean…” Darsy began.
“I can and I do, Darsy Cutter,” Leesha snapped. “She’s better with the knife than you and you know it. Swallow your pride and assist.”
Darsy scowled, but she nodded as Amanvah produced stones from her hora pouch. “I will put you both to sleep…”
Leesha shook her head. “Calm the child, but I’m staying awake.”
“There is no time to take herbs for the pain,” Amanvah said.
“Then get me something to bite on,” Leesha said.
Amanvah’s eyes crinkled as she smiled behind her veil. She nodded. “Your honor is boundless, daughter of Erny. Pain is only wind. Bend as the palm, and let it blow over you.”
* * * * *
The child’s cries filled the room, the babe wrapped in swaddling and thrust into Wonda’s arms while Amanvah and Darsy finished their work. Darsy was suturing the wound as Amanvah prepared hora magic to speed the healing.
Wonda stood stiff as a new father, terrified she might squeeze the child too hard and crush it. She looked down at the tiny olive-skinned face and Leesha knew the young woman would die to keep the baby safe.
Leesha’s arms twitched, wanting to reach out, but she needed to remain still until the work was done. For the moment, it was almost enough to know the child was healthy and safe.
“What is it?” Leesha asked.
Wonda’s head snapped up like an apprentice caught daydreaming. “Mistress?”
“My child,” Leesha begged. “Is it a boy or a girl?”
So much rode on the question. A male greenland heir to Ahmann Jardir might provoke outright war with Krasia, but a daughter would be no less a target. That the Krasians would come for the child was never in doubt, no matter what Amanvah swore. But when they came—now or over a decade hence—hinged on Wonda’s next words.
Wonda cradled the babe in one arm as she opened the swaddling. “It’s a b…” She frowned, looking closer.
At last she looked up, face twisted. “Core if I know, Mistress. Ent no Gatherer.”
Leesha stared at her, incredulous. “You don’t need to be a Gatherer, Wonda, to know what parts a boy has and what parts a girl.”
“That’s just it, Mistress.” Wonda looked pale.
“Babe’s got both.”