Lyrra plucked the squalling infant from the marshy water, giving the child a quick appraisal. She seemed healthy, all parts accounted for, arms and legs stretched out and flailing in rage, mouth wide open in wails, eyes squeezed tight against the horrors of what had happened.
With a silent curse, Lyrra stripped off her own tunic and wrapped the tiny baby in it. How many did that make now? How many babes had she rescued from death? And how many more had she lost? She held the infant close, cooing and swaying until the wails calmed and the child sleepily nuzzled her neck.
Lyrra's gaze traveled skyward, and she prayed for this child's life as she had done so often for others in the past. And for the first time, she named the child after one of her own--a daughter she had not seen in twenty-six years, a daughter who might now well have babes of her own. Arolin.
Tears of pain, grief, loneliness and despair mingled and fell quietly on the sleeping infant's downy hair.
Nine-year-old elfin prince Vantann Merripen poked his head into Crown Prince Darosenim Quartermane's study. His gaze scanned the small, homey room, quickly ascertaining that the prince was not there. He motioned his identical-twin brother, Thomlin, forward, and together they slipped into the study, closing the door quietly behind them. Vantann went at once to a high shelf behind Darosenim's large, carefully-arranged desk, while Thomlin pulled a chair close.
"Are you sure you know which one it is?" Thomlin whispered, brushing his mop of blond hair off his forehead.
"Positive. Just watch for Uncle Dar." Vantann climbed up on the chair and stretched for the book that was the goal of his quest. It was just beyond his searching fingers, and he cursed softly. His gaze darted over the room, seeking something to increase his height, and settled on a thick leather-bound volume lying on the desk. Quickly, he retrieved it, balanced it on the chair and climbed on top of it. His fingers closed upon the thin tome. "Got it!" he whispered triumphantly.
"Hurry up!" Thomlin urged. "Someone's coming!"
Vantann scrambled to return the chair and the heavy book to the desk. He slipped the thinner volume inside his tunic just as the door to the study opened.
Prince Darosenim strode in, his blue gaze intent upon a letter he held. He fairly collided with the twins. "Baerns!" he exclaimed, looking from one to the other. "What are you two doing here?"
The boys exchanged quick glances, then Vantann, the more verbal of the pair, spoke up. "Master Ulric has us studying neighboring countries in class. We were wondering if you might have a book we could borrow on Karsaba."
Darosenim frowned, moving toward his desk. "And what, pray tell, is wrong with the books in your father's library?"
Vantann shrugged as if the answer were obvious. "We've already looked at all of those. We thought we might find something different in one of yours. You know, something that every Karsab might know, but not every elf."
The prince eyed them suspiciously, then ran a hand through his thick, red hair. "Go ahead and look," he said, sitting down. He frowned and brushed the top of the heavy leather book Vantann had stood on. "But look in the library. I have work to do here."
"Thanks, Uncle Dar," Vantann said happily and led his brother from the room.
"That was too close," Thomlin murmured as they hurried down the heavily carpeted hallway.
"Doesn't matter. We got it. Let's just get home and see what it says."
They broke into a run and tore down the hallway toward the TravelPortal Vestibule. They reached it breathless and without hesitation stepped through, manipulating the Magic to return them to the Elfin Council Chambers in Lidgerwood. They emerged in their father's study and breathed matching sighs of relief that he was not there.
"Now comes the really tricky part," Vantann moaned softly. "If Mamay catches us out of music class again, we're in trouble."
"Correction. Big trouble. That'll make twice this month."
They grimaced together, thinking of the many unpleasant ways their music instructor might have to punish them. After all, he was under command of Odora Dava's king, Jansson van Tannen, who was also their surrogate uncle and as such was very close to their father, the elfin Crown Prince. Whatever the king suggested was likely to be heeded. The twins had already spent many grueling hours of extra practice, music translation and, their personal most hated, re-scoring.
They crept down the circular staircase past the library and fled for the hallway that linked the wings to the ten towers of the massive palace. In moments, they were in their room, the door safely closed behind them. Vantann heaved a sigh of relief, then froze as Jansson uncurled himself from one of the hearthside chairs with a loud yawn. He turned to face them, his large, brown eyes sarcastically surprised. He brushed soft brown curls from his forehead, looking for all the world as if he had just awakened from a nap. Truthfully, Vantann wouldn't be at all surprised if that weren't the case. Not that Jansson was old, he was just twenty-seven, but he and his wife, Zira, had just added their fifth child and both parents were exhausted. Still, Vantann didn't think that he or Thomlin would get off easy despite the bard's brief respite from fatigue.
"So," Jansson said calmly. "You apparently had better things to do today than music. Very well, I can understand that. We'll just double the practice sessions and times for the next week. After which, we'll work on some cataloguing and re-scoring in the music hall. The sheet music is badly out of order and half-chewed. Seems someone left it unbound on the desk and one of your brother's rabbits got into it, though gods know how the rabbit got into the house in the first place." He looked at them thoughtfully, then snapped his fingers as if in sudden revelation. "Could it have been that the porch door was left wide open?"
Vantann found his tongue before Jansson could go on. "We're sorry!" he cried. "Really! It was rather stuffy in the music hall yesterday and we opened the door for air. We must have forgotten to close it."
"And we thought Chaia was coming in to practice, anyway," Thomlin put in, then added in a weak voice, "We really are sorry."
Jansson glared at them both, though Vantann saw the sparkle in his uncle's eyes. "I'll expect to see you both tomorrow, straight after breakfast," Jansson said. "I'll go speak to your father now."
They groaned in unison and stepped aside to let him pass. As soon as the door was closed Vantann locked it, took the book from his tunic, and he and Thomlin flopped onto one of the beds to peruse the contents, completely ignoring Jansson's dire threat.
"See, look." Vantann pointed at the index. "Here it is. The Kartonn Caves of Challenge, page thirty-two." He flipped to the designated page and scanned the first several pages, then stabbed a finger at the following page and read aloud. "'The Caves of Challenge contain three basic elements. Man against nature, man against man and man against himself. How each of these battles presents itself has never been fully documented, as each participant able to survive the Caves has told a greatly different tale.'"
"Able to survive?" Thomlin echoed. "I don't like the sound of that."
Vantann frowned and continued. "'What is known is that each participant must face all elements heretofore known to man--fire, water, wind and earth.'" He looked at his brother. "That doesn't sound so hard. We deal with water every time we go to Uncle Quinlin's house, wind in Odora Dava and..."
"And fire every time we mess up something of Aunt Zira's," Thomlin interrupted with a laugh.
Vantann grinned. "Gods! I'm glad she's not our music teacher!"
"Well, how much longer do you think we can hold out against taking dance lessons from her?"
Vantann made a face. "I am not taking dance. That's for girls!"
Thomlin rolled onto his back to stare up at the high ceiling. "Elecka says it's really hard work, and that it helps with swords by keeping her reflexes quick."
"Oh, gods, Thoms! Don't start going all moon-eyed over Elecka again."
Thomlin blushed, his mind obviously on the beautiful ten-year-old brownling elf, daughter of King Kyel Sylvain. "Well, you have to admit, Vans, Elecka is the best swordsman around here for her age."
"That's just because she practices so much. Grandpapay Kyel probably makes her."
"That's not true! Elecka practices because she wants to." He sat up as the clock in the hallway outside their room began to chime. He counted the strikes silently, then rapped Vantann. "It's time for swords. We can't be late. Weaponsmaster will make us work over, and I want to go to the beach later. Come on."
"Tens!" Vantann exclaimed, his mind elsewhere. "Part of the book is missing! Look." He read aloud. "'The following are the rules governing the Caves.'" He looked at Thomlin. "Most of the rules are missing and some of these pages are torn. In fact, it looks like the whole next chapter is missing."
"What does the index say the next chapter is about?"
Vantann turned to the index. "Bardic magic in Kartonn." He let out a huff of irritation. "Guess who has that chapter?"
"Uncle Jansson," Thomlin sighed as he rose. "How are we ever going to find it at Mayfaire?"
Vantann climbed off the bed and tucked the book between his mattresses, but his brother grabbed his hand.
"Not there! Mamay will find it. Better put it in the chimney. It's too hot for a fire anyway."
Vantann nodded and took the book to the hearth. Thomlin pried out the large fieldstone they'd loosened months earlier and put the book in the hole behind the stone, nestling it down amongst their other treasures. Together, they replaced the rock, then started at a loud rap on the door.
"Boys?" The voice belonged to Druce Sinclair, their father's squire and SoulMate. "If you're in there, you're late!"
Thomlin hurried to unlock the door to the dark-haired Merian. "I know, Uncle Druce. We're going to swords now."
"You'd better move then," Druce said. "Your father was quite serious about leaving you behind when the family goes to Bailiwycke later." He moved aside to allow the twins to slip past him into the hallway. "Oh, and from what I heard, he's none too pleased with you two skipping out on music today, either. A good sword practice may ease his anger."
Vantann and Thomlin exchanged grimaces and tore down the hallway, taking the stairs two at a time, Druce's laughter ringing in their ears.
* * *
Treyas Merripen looked up from his paperwork, startled, as the door to his study opened. He breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing Druce. "Did you get the boys to swords?"
"They're on their way," Druce replied, dropping his sturdy frame into a chair. "Not that it means they'll actually get there," he added dryly. "It's amazing how much Vantann is like his namesake. I think he goads Thomlin into half of these misadventures."
Treyas chuckled lightly. "Just like Jansson used to do to me. Well, hopefully, at some point Thomlin will take after his namesake and start to keep Vans in line. If it weren't for Quinlin, who knows what would have happened with me and Jans."
Druce laughed, rose and poured two glasses of wine from the decanter on the sideboard. "What are you working on?"
Treyas exhaled sharply, dropping his quill. "You mean re-working on," he muttered. "Kyel just had these returned to me. Letters of introduction and intent. He must be feeling adventuresome again. He wants to meet with the leaders of several other countries. I've got Euclea, Kartonn, Anrofia, Standforthe and Mere Odain here." He left the desk to join Druce by the hearth.
"Let me guess which one you're having trouble with," the Merian said, handing him a glass.
Treyas rolled his eyes and sank down onto a chair. He picked absently at the finely woven tapestry, took a sip of wine and let out a small sigh. "You know me well. It was hard enough going back to Mere Odain last year for El'leigh's wedding. I certainly have no desire to explore the place."
Druce looked over at him. "Explore? I hardly think that's Kyel's intention. More likely formal dinners and discussions with other leaders."
"And he insists on dragging me along," Treyas mumbled, settled back into the chair and took another sip of wine. "You know, I thought that the older Pepin got, the more I would relax about Mere Odain's pull on him, but I find that's not the case. And, even though I've installed a Portal there, I still don't like him going there. Why am I so possessive of him?"
"Maybe because he's not your birth son. Maybe because ever since you've known him Mere Odain has been trying to re-claim him in one way or the other. You're just going to have to try to convince yourself that Pepin has made his choice. He's eighteen years old, he's been with you for twelve of those years, he's had numerous opportunities to return to Mere Odain and he's rejected them all. He's now married and settled in here. I'd say, all in all, Pepin's where he wants to be."
"You're right. As usual." Treyas was silent for a moment, staring into the red depths of his wine.
Druce frowned and picked up the slack. "What else is bothering that powerful little mind of yours?"
Treyas chuckled, though there was no mirth in it. "Cynthe."
Druce backed away from the subject of Treyas' wife. "I'm afraid I can't help you much here. Brynne has warned me to stay out of it."
"Brynne?" Treyas looked at him surprised. Sweet Brynne? Who, until a year ago, still called Treyas M'Lord--despite having been married to Druce for seven years and living in the same household.
"Aye. She says I may be your SoulMate, but I need to know when to draw the line and become just your friend."
"Brynne said that?" Treyas was amazed. He rarely heard the petite Merian woman say anything. Sometimes he wondered if she were afraid of him. He glanced at Druce sideways. "All right, then, as my friend, what would you suggest?"
Druce ran a hand through his thick, dark hair, obviously uncomfortable with the question. "I can only look at it as an outsider, Trey. I can't feel what you and Cynthe feel."
Treyas snorted softly. "Don't give me that, Druce. You've always been able to feel what I feel." He took another drink of wine. "But if you choose not to get involved, I respect that."
There was a short silence before Druce spoke again. "Are you thinking you have to make the decision today?"
"We are going to Quinlin's house," Treyas answered. "The timing is good. Falan is a year old. If Cynthe is going to become with child, it'll happen soon. And that scares me to death." He ran a hand over his face. "I don't want to lose her, Druce. I couldn't stand it." He rose to pace. "I just wish she could accept what Gerowen has told her. We have seven children, six of whom she's given birth to. Why does she feel that she's inadequate? I mean, just because her mother had fourteen children doesn't mean she has to. She just keeps insisting that my elfin magic or Elek's sorcery or Jansson's bardic or even Drisana's wizardry should be able to keep her from dying during childbirth. It probably could. But, dammit, Druce, I'm just not willing to take the chance." He stopped, one hand resting lightly on the mantle, his head bowed, his gaze locked on the flagstones of the hearth.
Druce rose and gripped his shoulder reassuringly. "Maybe you should tell her exactly what you just told me."
Treyas raised his head to look at his friend. "I have. More than once. But Karsabs are a stubborn lot. I don't know what else to do."
"There are always separate rooms."
"Don't think I haven't thought about it. But the last thing Cynthe needs is for me to push her away right now." He looked over as the study door opened. His wife peered in.
"Oh! I didn't realize you were busy," she said softly.
"Just finished up," Druce said, quickly emptying his glass. He set it on the table, shot Treyas an encouraging look and made a hasty exit.
Cynthe watched him go with a slight smile, then closed the door softly. Treyas watched her approach, taken as always with her beauty. Her waist-length blond hair was loose, something usually reserved for night, and it framed her delicate face and wide violet eyes. Six children had softened her curves, something Treyas found especially appealing. He smiled and gathered her close, burying his face in her hair. It was incredibly soft and smelled of vanilla, and he breathed deeply of the calming aroma. She pulled back and kissed him gently.
"You've been avoiding me," she said.
"I haven't," he protested weakly. "I've been busy. These letters--"
"That's not what I'm talking about," she interrupted.
He sighed, sat down and pulled her onto his lap. "You haven't been making it easy," he murmured, running his fingers through her hair.
She kissed his forehead. "I didn't intend to."
She stopped him with a finger to his lips. "Listen. I've been doing my own research. There's a new procedure some healers in Karsaba are doing. They take the baby through your belly a week or so before it's due to be born. It's supposed to be safe for the baby and the mother."
Treyas went white. "No, Cynthe! That's slicing you open, like you were a...a side of pork! No!" He shook his head, shuddered and hugged her close. "No."
She was quiet for a long time, her chin resting on his head, her arms wrapped about his neck. Treyas could hear her heart pounding. "So, you've made your decision then?" she finally asked.
He pulled back to look at her and touched her cheek gently. "Cynthe, I love my children and I would have as many as you want, but I won't risk losing you in the process. I love you too much. You're my SoulMate, my friend, my partner, my life. What would I do without you?"
She sighed heavily. "I never thought this would happen to me," she mumbled as she rose. She walked over to look out the window. "What's wrong with me, Trey?"
Treyas joined her. "Nothing is wrong with you, myshay," he replied, slipping his arms around her from behind. He was only as tall as she was, and he leaned his chin on her shoulder to stare outside at the vast lawns of the palace, and the forests beyond. The leaves were turning, and the woods were like a giant red, gold, brown and green patchwork quilt. Treyas' sensitive elfin ears picked up the various sounds around him: the horses whinnying in the fields, the clacking of wooden practice swords in the sparring arena, the giggles and shrieks of his younger children as they played outside under the watchful eyes of Brynne.
Treyas turned Cynthe to face him. "I've been doing my own research, too," he said. "There's no reason for you to be treated by Drisana. I can be. And there is a possibility that my procedure can be reversed at some time in the future, after your body has healed and regained its strength."
Cynthe looked at him hopefully. "Do you think it ever will?"
Treyas shrugged. "It may. No one is really sure exactly why it weakened so. But there is a chance."
"And then we could have more babes?"
"Perhaps. There are no guarantees, but it would be better than separate rooms."
Cynthe looked appalled. "Separate rooms! The thought had never crossed my mind!"
Treyas grinned. "How else did you expect to keep me away?"
"I didn't expect to have to. Nor would I want to. You've been driving me half-mad already with your vow of chastity. Baerns! I'm about to join a nunnery!"
Treyas laughed. "And I a monastery." He glanced out the window. "The afternoon is getting on. If we're to have any time for swimming, we'd better get moving. Vans and Thoms should be done with swords by now."
"Speaking of the twins, did you know they skipped music again today?"
"I did. Jansson was here. He's doubled their practice sessions and their times for one week. Plus he's got some other work arranged for them. It seems they left the music-hall door open yesterday and one of Pepin's rabbits got in and chewed up some sheet music."
Cynthe groaned. "Those two! What next? Did you also know that they were experimenting with magic in the woods? They set the pond to boiling by accident and killed every fish in it."
"I knew about the magic, use, but not the pond," Treyas admitted, grimacing. "I'll speak to them about it."
"What you need to do is speak to Elek," Cynthe said. "He's the one who's teaching them to use sorcery magic. As if elfin and naiad weren't enough!"
"But what can I say?" Treyas asked with a weak shrug. "He's their grandfather. Though I am at a loss as to how they can even use sorcery magic."
"Mamay!" Pepin burst into the study, his brown cheeks flushed, his dark eyes wide. "Oh, thank the gods! I finally found you!" He rushed across the room and gripped Cynthe's hand. "It's Nila! She's really sick, and I don't know what to do. Please, help."
"I'll come, too," Treyas said at once, alarm sweeping through him.
"No." Cynthe stopped him gently, her touch instantly calming him. "You take the children on to the beach. If Nila needs a healer, Gerowen is available. Go, myshay. I'll join you later. Come on, Pepin, let's go see Nila. And calm down. You'll do her no good at all if you're so upset."
Treyas watched them go with a sigh. No sooner were they away than Druce appeared. "What were you doing?" Treyas teased. "Guarding the door?"
"Just waiting," Druce replied with a grin. "So, do I gather the children up or not?"
"You do." Treyas glanced at the desk and the paperwork strewn over it. "Oh, tens! This can wait. Kyel may come apart at the seams, but I've had enough of these letters for now. Come on. I'll help you get the children together. Jansson and Dar are probably already there, and if we don't get there soon, there'll be no food left."
Druce laughed and led the way from the study.
* * *
Cynthe arrived at Quinlin Thomarius' house in Bailiwycke an hour later. Treyas relaxed upon seeing her wide smile. Apparently, Nila would be all right. But his reservations returned when Cynthe bypassed the women and made a straight path to where he sat with the other men in the sand, watching the children play in the surf. He rose, brushing sand from his clothes. Cynthe had changed into a tunic and leggings that hugged her form, and Treyas had to remind himself that he had not yet seen Drisana professionally.
"Myshay!" Cynthe reached him breathlessly and took his hand, drawing him well away from the others. "Myshay, guess what? You're going to be a grandpa!"
"What?" Treyas mumbled, then his mismatched blue and green eyes grew wide. "What!" he cried again, so loudly that Druce and Quinlin looked his way. He was vaguely aware of Quinlin's smile.
Cynthe nodded. "Nila's not sick. She's with child. Pepin's going to be a father."
"A father! But they've been married for only six months!"
Cynthe blushed. "And we were married for only two before I became with child," she reminded him.
"But he's so young!"
"He's the same age you were, myshay." Cynthe kissed his cheek. "What you're really saying is that you're too young."
"Gods, Cynthe! I'm only twenty-eight!" He looked up at Quinlin's approach.
"Couldn't help but overhear," Quinlin said. "A curse of elfin ears." He held out a mug of cold ale, which Treyas accepted and immediately took a long pull from. Quinlin laughed. "You'd better grab a bite to eat, Cynthe. The children are begging to cut the birthday cake. Come on, Grandpa, let's share the good news."
"Grandpa?" Treyas stared at him. "Grandpa," he murmured again and took another long drink. He looked again at his wife. "You knew, didn't you? You knew about this? That's why you weren't worried."
"I'm a good guesser." Cynthe smiled, patted his cheek, and went to join the others while Quinlin led a dazed Treyas back toward Druce, Darosenim and Jansson.
"So, what was that all about?" Jansson asked, looking up at him.
"Pepin...Nila...she's...they're..." Treyas could not quite get the words out.
"I think what Treyas is trying to say is that Nila and Pepin are going to have a baby," Quinlin said.
There was a collective gasp from the three young men. Then Jansson spoke up. "That makes you a grandpa, Treyas. Gods! Twenty-eight years old and a grandpa!" He howled with laughter.
Treyas covered his eyes briefly. "A grandpa, and I have a one-year-old. Tens! I need to sit down." He dropped to the sand just as Vantann and Thomlin raced over to him, still dripping wet.
"Papay!" they shrieked together. "We're going to be uncles!" They danced around, scattering sand in all directions. A moment later, their sheepdog, Rainbow, also dripping wet, joined them. The dog planted all four feet and shook violently, showering the men with water and sending them all to their feet with a gasp.
"Vans! Thoms!" Treyas scolded. "Get Rainbow away!"
The boys complied, dashing off down the beach, Rainbow in pursuit.
"Gods!" Jansson cried. "That's not a dog! That's a sponge!"
"What's a little water?" Quinlin asked. "That's what you come to the beach for, isn't it?"
Treyas noticed a mischievous glint in his friend's eyes and hastily stepped back. But Darosenim had taken up the bait and grinned, nudging Druce. The three of them descended on Jansson like a pack of wolves on its kill.
"Oh, no!" Jansson cried. "No, you don't!"
He struggled wildly against their grip as they hauled him down the beach and onto the dock. They tossed him, still protesting, into the water. He came up sputtering, then went down again. This time he did not resurface immediately and Treyas grinned, recognizing the play. He'd certainly fallen for it enough times over the years. As had Quinlin, who stealthily backed away. Darosenim and Druce, however, fell for the deception, knelt and leaned over the edge of the dock to peer into the water.
"Jans?" Darosenim called. "Jans, come on. This isn't funny!" He leaned farther.
Jansson exploded from the water almost directly underneath Darosenim's face, snagged him around the neck and yanked him forward. Darosenim yelped, grabbed for Druce and both flew from the dock, landing in the water with a mighty splash. The wake surged upward and drenched Quinlin from the waist down. Treyas burst into laughter, shook his head and went toward the women, who were watching the entire episode in disbelief. Even Vantann and Thomlin looked amazed. Darosenim's small son clapped his hands with delight.
"Papa go swimming!" he cried happily.
"Papa act like a fool," Gerowen mumbled.
"They all are," Zira agreed. "All except Grandpa here."
Treyas flushed. He had half a notion to dash down the beach and join his friends. But Drisana was standing in the doorway of the cottage, obviously waiting for him. He paused, darting a glance at Cynthe. She gave a small, forced smile and looked away. Treyas beckoned Gerowen to his side. The brownie spoke before he could.
"I'm sure, Treyas," she said quietly. "I've been a healer too long not to know. Another child right now will kill Cynthe. She needs time."
Treyas looked from her to Drisana with a resigned sigh and went toward the wizard. "How long will this take?"
"A few minutes. Come on inside."
He followed her into the cottage nervously. She smiled. "Why are you so afraid of wizard magic? You deal with every other kind without batting an eye, but wizard magic makes you uneasy. Why?"
"Maybe because wizard magic almost drained the life out of me once," he answered with a shudder.
"Well, it's not going to drain the life out of you now. Just the baby-making ability." Drisana paused. "For a while anyway. All right?"
He nodded. "All right. I know I'm doing the right thing. Just get on with it."
"It's done," she said softly.
"What? But I didn't hear you say anything!"
"I had the spell preset. It only required one word to cast it." She smiled. "I'll let you figure out which one. Go join your wife. I'll be right out. I don't want to miss the--"
"Gods!" Jansson stumbled into the cottage, his arms wrapped tightly about his chest. Druce, Darosenim and Quinlin closely followed him. "That water is cold! How in Tor's hell can those children play in it?"
Treyas laughed. "You're just getting old, Jans. It never used to bother you."
"Well, it bothers me now!" Jansson snapped. "We need towels!"
"I'll get them," Quinlin said.
"No!" Drisana cried. "You'll stay there. You're dripping. I'll get the towels." She hurried off, mumbling about overgrown children.
"I'll wait for you outside," Treyas said, sidling past them.
"Not so fast!" Jansson said, stopping him. "Boys!"
Treyas' eyes went wide as they surrounded him. "Oh, no! Come on. I'm a grandpa, for gods' sakes!"
"And we never properly congratulated you on that," Jansson replied and gave him a big hug. Darosenim was next, followed by Druce and finally Quinlin. By the time they were done congratulating him he was as wet as they were.
Drisana returned with the towels, sighed and went to get another one.