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The Wind Warrior: Chapter Eight

By on the 28th day, Terran month 1 in The Wind Warrior (Novel) | 0 comments

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CHAPTER EIGHT

“Nothing,” Ardenai groaned, fingers against Io’s forehead.  “She’s … gone.”

Pythos, panting a little from his sprint across the parade ground with Moonsgold, pushed Ardenai’s hand gently out of the way to touch her.  He bent close, eyes closed, hissing softly as he flicked her face with his tongue.  Then slowly, his hands began to move down until they touched the arrow’s shaft.  There, he stopped.  Hissed with despair.  “Sshe’ss dying,” he said.  Then, after a moment, “Io, sshe iss not going to live, let go of her.”

He raised up suddenly, jerked Io up by the front of her tunic and slapped her hard across the face.  “Let go of her lesst ye die also!  Io, let go.  Equuss needss thee.  Ardenai needss thee.  We pray thee, come back!”

Ardenai, filthy, bloody and horrified, just sat there on his boot heels, slowly shaking his head from side to side, grief-stricken and shocked beyond words, his only realization being that where there might still be life, there was also the loss of an innocent.  His daughter would die beneath the sycamore tree where he had carried her mother only moments before. Never to be held, or kissed, or cradled.  She would spill with her mother’s blood onto the dirt … the dry grass … and be lost to them forever. His tiny princess.  His Ah’leah.  He heard himself weeping, and wondered where he found the energy.

Very softly, too quietly for any but Equi ears, Io moaned.  Her eyelids quivered, and as Ardenai caught her hand, her eyes opened, brimming with tears.  “Our baby,” she whispered.  “I can’t save our baby.”

“Hush,” Ardenai murmured, pushing her hair back, and his tears plowed dirty streaks down his face to drip on her tunic. “It is enough to save thyself, little one.  Just … save thyself.”

In that moment, Keats found them, and when Ardenai looked up at him and then away, Keats felt his own eyes burn with tears.

“There iss no time for that!” Pythos hissed.  “Sshe is bleeding to death.  Here, now, or not at all sshe must be ssaved.”

Keats and Moonsgold both nodded.

“I will keep her quiet, and take from her the essence of the child so that she no longer struggles to keep her alive.  Just … tie everything off.  Sstop the bleeding.  I can make repairss later if sshe ssurvives.”

“I will keep her quiet,” Ardenai said calmly, “and I will take the essence of my daughter, if she yet lives.  Pythos, you and Moonsgold help her.”  Keats’s eyes hardened, and Ardenai shook his head and pointed with his chin.  “Konik risked his life for us, Doctor.  He is my friend, and he may have the answers we seek for this.  He needs your considerable skill or he will die.  One of the Equi will help you quiet his mind.  Teal, perhaps, or Kehailan.”

Again Keats nodded, squeezed Ardenai’s shoulder, and moved away.

“Ardenai,” Pythos hissed, “You now rissk both your livess. You were not designed to go through this, and to discipline a panicky, dying embryo of a child as well …”

“They are mine!” the Firstlord snarled through his teeth, and Pythos turned in dismay from the grief on his face.

The serpent saw what was happening and why, register as horror on Ah’krill’s aristocratic features, and he saw her turn and hurry toward them.  He was tempted to tell Ardenai to wait a moment more, to let Ah’krill have the child, and the pain, but the Firstlord had already dropped to his knees and sat back on his heels to anchor himself. He bent forward at the waist, cradling Io’s head and shoulders on his thighs and reached, first with one hand, then the other, to touch her face, bringing his forehead down against hers with a sob of pain.  His own face contorted, and he grunted as though he’d been punched in the stomach, but the flow of blood began to slow, and finally stopped so Pythos could work.

What Ardenai felt in the time which ensued, he never told anyone, nor would he allow the subject mentioned, but minute by minute his breathing grew more labored until he was sobbing for every breath, and the flow of sweat grew heavier until he was bathed in it, and he grew paler and paler, until his skin was stark white and nearly transparent.

Suddenly he let out a shrill, terrified cry, his head flew up, and he would have fallen backward, but a strong pair of arms was holding him in place by then, and at a command from Pythos, a forearm to the back of the Equi’s neck pushed his head back down against his wife’s.  Only when Pythos touched him with his own thoughts, telling him it was accomplished and pushing his hands away, did he topple sideways into Gideon’s embrace.

“Do not move them jusst yet,” Pythos instructed.  He rested his bloody fingers for a few moments against Ardenai’s cheek, flicking him tenderly, nervously with his tongue.  “He hass her, or sshe hass him, I’m not ssure which,” he said. “If he panics, or goes into hysterics, keep him from hurting himsself, Gideon.  And give him water as ssoon as he wakess.  Above all, try to keep him quiet, and in mind of who he iss.”  He flicked the Firstlord again with his tongue, and moved off to where Hadrian Keats, Winslow Moonsgold and Teal were working on Konik.

“You should have told me about the injury to the child!  It was my place, not yours, and certainly not his, to absorb the entat of the little priestess,” Ah’krill said as Pythos brushed past her to kneel beside Konik.  “A man is not equipped for that kind of pain, and it will haunt him all his days.  You knew she was a product of my potions.  She was my responsibility!”

“And thee sshould have told thy son that thy potions would leave him generative!” Pythos retorted angrily.   “If he’d known, Io would not have been ssettled.  Thiss … all of thiss, wass your doing, your grassping to remain in power!”

“The child may not stay with him,” Ah’krill grated.  “She was bred for prayer, not politics.  It is unseemly to have her so mingled with the Thirteenth Dragonhorse.  It is intellectual incest, and you know it.”

“I also know that it iss done!” the serpent hissed.  “Leave me alone, I have work to do.  Go send up smoke, Priestesss.  Pray for thine own ssoul!”

Ah’krill swept away from them back to the edge of the gaming arena, and stood staring as if to recreate the events of the afternoon.  An arm came around her shoulders, and someone kissed her, firmly, lingeringly on the temple.  “You needed that, whether you know it or not,” said the soft drawl, and Ah’krill looked in amazement at Marion Eletsky.  “Having dealt more or less ineffectively with Kehailan for several years, I’ve decided to turn over a new leaf with you Equi.  I don’t care what you need anymore, or what you say you need.  I’m going to comfort you in a way that comforts me.  At least then I’m sure one of us is getting what he needs.”

“An excellent idea,” the priestess said, patting his arm as she slipped hers through it.  “It is obvious I am not needed here, nor am I welcome.  I am a source of anger and resentment, and rightly so.  If I had stayed in the house … or gone into hiding…. Please, walk me to my room.”

“Of course I will.  And I want you to be kind to yourself.  When tragedies like this are fresh, it’s very hard to speak and act rationally.  You know that.”

“Young man, do not talk to me about rationality.” she said, “tell me instead where you got that marvelous inflection of speech.”  So Marion walked her slowly up the path past the stables, telling her what it had been like to be a barefoot country boy in the lush, blue-green Tennolina Mountains of the Equi Affined World called Terren.

When Ardenai was aware of anything, it was that his face was numb, and his head and his back ached mercilessly.  What he meant to be a breath of air was a groan of pain, and he woke up with his head in Gideon’s lap.  “Uh … Gideon,” he managed, trying to swallow and rubbing at his face with hands that were shaking badly enough to put his own eyes out. “So … thirsty.”

“I have water for thee.  Oonah Pongo just brought it.”

“Up.  Now.” Ardenai whispered.

“Not a wise choice,” Gideon said, but even as he said it he obliged, putting an arm against the Equi’s back and shoving him into an upright position, then getting an arm around him to keep him from falling over.  “Tad weak, yes?  Can you hold onto this flask?”

He couldn’t, not without help, and the water which he swallowed came spewing back up as he doubled over with pain.  Doggedly, he took another swig, holding his breath in an unsuccessful attempt to keep it down.  “Sorry.  I feel as though … I have no bones.  How long was I … like that?” he said through his teeth.  “Where’s Io?”

“Right beside you, Ardenai.  Move your right hand.  There.  You haven’t been out at all, really.  A couple minutes.”  Gideon got to his knees without letting go of the half-conscious Equi, then shifted around and pulled Ardenai more comfortably against him.

The Firstlord went limp for a few moments, his head thudding into the side of Gideon’s neck.  Then his jaw tightened – Gideon could feel it flexing against his collar bone – and Ardenai pulled himself up again to reach for Io.  Carefully, so carefully, with trembling fingers he touched her cheek.  “Gideon … losses?”

Gideon pressed the flask into his hand again, and helped him hold it.  “You have to try to rehydrate yourself, Firstlord.  Three Telenir, counting Sarkhan, as far as I know.  On our side, just … well, none that I know of.”

“No warriors at least.  Is Nik … one of the three?”

“No.  He’s holding his own.  So is Io.”

“Where … is Kehailan?” He sipped, gagged, cursed softly.

“Locking up the Telenir, I suppose.”

“You suppose?”

“Yes, Ardenai Firstlord, I suppose.  It’s hard to discern a whole helluva lot in the first fifteen minutes after a battle, especially when you couldn’t care less what’s going on around you.” His eyes brimmed with tears, and Ardenai patted his arm to comfort him.

“Forgive me.  I count you too often older than your years.  That ride you made, jumping me with Tolbeth to take Ah’krill from danger?  Even at that moment … I was proud of you.  I want you to go now and tell Kehailan …”

“I cannot leave thee,” Gideon said, “Pythos asked me not to.”

“I’ll stay with him,” said Moonsgold, kneeling beside them.  “What do you want the young man to do?”

“Tell Kee and Tarpan … to be sure the prisoners are not able to harm themselves,” Ardenai said, flipping his hand and gasping with the effort of doing it.  “Go quickly.  Check on Ah’krill as well, and tell me what else you … can discover about … the day.” He drew a sudden, sobbing breath, doubled over and whispered, “I hurt!  Precious Equus, I hurt so badly!”  He jerked, as though the words had startled him, and shook his head to clear it.  “Sorry,” he said again. “I don’t know why I said that.  I’m … fine … little cramp of some kind.”

“Rest,” Gideon said.  He helped Moonsgold prop Ardenai, half against the tree trunk, half against the doctor, pressed the flask into his hand, and ran toward the house, knowing Winnie knew what to do, but wishing Jilfan hadn’t taken all the horses away.  Strange, Jilfan rounding up the horses rather than staying with his mother.  Then, perhaps not.  Blood could be unnerving, the blood of a loved one, particularly so.

As he got near the house he began calling for Kehailan or Tarpan, and soon from an outbuilding Daleth beckoned him over. Gideon eyed the prisoners and shuddered involuntarily at the blanketed corpses. He gave Kehailan the message, and asked where Jilfan was.  No one knew.  He’d herded the horses into that holding pen over there, and disappeared.  Gideon was not to worry.  Someone would unsaddle them shortly.  Gideon went to the house and looked in on Ah’krill.  He found her sitting with Oonah Pongo and Captain Eletsky.  Again, Jilfan was not there.  This time, he expressed some concern.  The boy had been fine at the end of hostilities, he knew that, but where was he?  Could he possibly want to be alone?  Gideon didn’t see how.  It was all he could do not to turn right straight around and bolt back to Ardenai’s side.  But there were things to do.  Catching Timothy, Tarpan, and Daleth as they came from the farrier’s shed, he asked them to find six poles for stretchers, and he went back inside for blankets.

“Hadrian thinks Konik will make it,” Moonsgold said quietly, holding Ardenai in place against the tree with one hand, and feeling his face with the other.  “The arrow didn’t strike any vital organs, and the head went clear through, which is a good thing.  Turned up rather than down or he’d be a dead man.  Did shatter his breast bone, which must hurt like hell.  Ardenai, you skin is like ice, and you’re soaking wet.  Are you cold?”

“Yes.  Perhaps if I … walked a bit.”

“Is this before or after you manage to sit up by yourself?”

Ardenai smacked his fists on the ground, gasping as much from weakness as from pain and annoyance.  “Pythos, what is wrong with me?” he demanded.  “I have been in pain before and walked away from it.”

“Not like thiss thee hassn’t” the serpent hissed, kneeling beside Io.  “Thy mind firmly believess that thy body hass jusst losst a baby, and a tremendouss amount of blood with it.  Thee has taken an arrow in the guts for all it knowss.  Thy infant daughter iss sstill sscreaming around in thy head.  Males never, ever absorb fetussess, sso sshe hass no idea where sshe iss, and … neither of thee wass properly prepared, and I haven’t had time to help thee with her … and every ssecond thee fightss it, thee makes it worsse.  Pleasse, jusst let thysself ssleep. Have merccy on an old dragon.  Give me one lesss thing to worry about.”

“I need to stay awake for Io,” he whispered, and his eyes closed as his head thudded dully against the trunk of the huge sycamore.

Moonsgold had been looking first at Pythos, then at Ardenai.  Now, wide-eyed, he looked back at the serpent.  “Are you telling me … his male mind is capable of putting his body through a miscarriage?”

“No.  Io’ss mind iss, though.  And it did.  What sshe could not have lived through, he took upon himsself.  The actual wound, and the blood losss, were herss.  The pain and the sshock, he carriess for now, and the terrible grief … they sshare in equal part.”

“Why would you do that?” a sharp voice asked, and Hadrian Keats appeared over Moonsgold’s shoulder.  “Why would you risk yourself like that … knowing how it could affect your home world?  It was a stupid, irrational thing to do.  And why wouldn’t you let me work on Io?  Do you really think I’d do something to her?”

“No, of course not, Hadrian.  I knew your treatment of Io would take longer than I could stand the pain, that’s all.  Therefore I asked you to take care of Konik.  Secondly …” his eyes closed, he took a deep, gasping breath, wrapped his arms around his middle, and exhaled with a soft moan.

“Two can wait, you rest,” Keats said, and his face was contrite.

“No.  I have to stay awake.  Secondly, I wanted that time with my wife and with my daughter, because those few moments, were all we had as a family.  I wanted Io to know I will always be here for her.”  Ardenai sighed, trying to swallow the choking dryness in his throat.  “I know this makes no sense to you, Doctor.  Right now, it makes no sense to me.  Nothing … makes any sense to me.  I’m really scared.”

Pythos’ hand touched Ardenai’s face, his tongue flicking against the Equi’s eyelids.  “Pleasse, ssleep.  Thee iss in great danger.”

“How can I sleep?” Ardenai groaned miserably.  “I awoke at Canyon keep one sunny morning, and Ree was dead beside me.  I never got to say goodbye, never got to tell her I loved her.  What if I wake up, and Io is dead?”

“What if sshe wakes up and thee iss dead?” Pythos murmured, and even as he spoke, his hand floated across Ardenai’s face and the Equi slumped against him.  “Thee iss sstill my baby,” Pythos whispered.  “Ssleep a bit now and rebuild thy sstrength.”

Keats just … looked at him.  “That was his decision to make, not yours,” he said at last, and Moonsgold snorted, shaking his head in annoyance.

“He doesn’t get it,” he said. “He’s never been a daddy, and he just doesn’t get it.”

“Then let me exssplain it,” Pythos said in a voice sharper than what they were used to hearing.  “In addition to his wife’ss pain, he hass taken upon himsself the entat – the living essence of a child, and a female child at that.  Sshe iss too young to know how to walk, talk, eat, drink, to regulate her bodily functionsss, or to breathe by hersself, let alone think for hersself.  Sshe is reacting.  That iss all sshe iss capable of.  Thee can’t hear her coming out of his mouth?  I can.  Sshe iss terrified at being torn from her mother.  Her prematurely awakened and embryonic conssciousness will roll through him like water through an opened floodgate if sshe iss allowed to.  Sshe is pure energy at thiss point – pure, unthinking, undissciplined energy.  If he iss too exhaussted, he will losse to her, and losse himsself, and if he doess, they will both be losst, becausse sshe doessn’t know how to breathe on her own.  Because I am the one who knowss what to do, I am the one who needss to be in control.”

“I do think she’s controlling his heartbeat,” Moonsgold said, sotto voce.  “It’s terribly fast.”

The old serpent nodded, and Gideon’s voice cut in, alarmed, as always, when he perceived Ardenai to be in danger.  “But … you’re fine, Pythos, and didn’t you tell me once that you carried the entat of many people, blended within your consciousness?  Are none of them babies?  Can’t you get her out of there before she … harms him in some way?”

“Ah, Gideon, I am pleassed that thou art back.  To answer you, all of them are babies.  We do not conssider it moral to take the entatss of adultss, or even children after they begin to toddle.  However, almosst none are fetussess this rudimentary, as the mother usually hass the sstrength to reabsssorb them into her own conssciousness.  Our little Io attempted to do that, and nearly died in the procccesss.”  He sighed, and uncoiled onto his feet.  “Ardenai iss Dragonhorsse, it wass hiss choicce, and it iss done.  Timothy, please help Kehailan with Konik.  And Teal, thou art here as well.  Good. Thee can help me carry thy kinsman.  Doctor Keatss, wilt thou and Doctor Moonsgold pleasse bring our little Io?”

They set about readying the stretchers, and Pythos beckoned Gideon to one side. “I want thee to go to Ssouth Hold village and get Ah’nora.  Thee will find her at the tanner’ss sshop.  Tell her what hass happened, everything that hass happened, and bring her back here as ssoon ass thee can.”

Gideon knit his eyebrows and said, “Pardon, Physician Pythos, but … I …” he cleared his throat and glanced around to ascertain who might be within earshot.  “I know that the lady Io was pregnant, and that she has lost her little one.  I also know that Ah’nora carries the son of the Firstlord.  Do you really think it is … I do know thou art wise, but … do you really think it’s the best thing for Io to have Ah’nora here?”

Pythos flicked Gideon with his tongue and said, “Thou art kind, Hatchling, and thoughtful.  But I need Ah’nora, and your ssire will need Ah’nora.  We sshall worry about the resst of it when Io is conssciouss again.  For now, pleasse do as I assk.”

“Certainly,” Gideon said, and trotted toward the pen where the horses still stood waiting.  He took Tolbeth and Kimmis, and rode off in the direction of the village at a ground-eating canter.

Ah’krill slipped quietly into the gardens and stood, palms out, eyes closed, seeking with her mind the palpable grief she could feel emanating from somewhere close by.  Slowly, eyes still closed, she began to focus, and her body turned.  When she opened her eyes she was facing the stable, and she walked in that direction.

It was evening, nearly dark, and the interior of the stable was nothing more than a black tunnel with a dim light at the far end.  But light, she didn’t need.  She could follow the sobs.  She found their source in an empty stall.  Jilfan, lying in the straw, weeping in pain and sorrow.

He was unaware of her presence until she sat beside him and her hand came to rest on his shoulder, then he choked, and looked up, not knowing who it was. “Leave me,” he sobbed.  “I will make you unclean with my cowardice.”

“So, you are a coward, and I am a stupid old woman,” Ah’krill said gently, and Jilfan sat up with a gasp of recognition.  “We’re quite the pair, aren’t we?”

“Forgive me!” he managed, dragging his palms across his face.  “Please, forgive me, Ah’krill.”

“I have no need to forgive you, Child.  But I sense a great need for you to forgive yourself.  What pains you so?”

“I am a coward!  I saw my dam fall in battle, and I ran.  I left her care to a stranger, a Declivian.  I left her to die!  Leave me.  I am unfit.”

“You are untried,” Ah’krill corrected firmly.  “That does not mean you are unfit.”

“I ran away!”

“I ran away, Jilfan.  Away from Equus.  I came here, thinking I was doing the right thing, but perhaps I was not.  Perhaps Pythos is right and what happened today, happened because of me.  The first shot was fired at me.  An honorable and gallant man went down with an arrow through his back because of me.  Your mother lies injured, because of me.”

“No,” Jilfan said quietly, and forgetting who she was, sensing only kindred grief, his hand closed over hers.  “It doesn’t make sense to assume so much.  I have sat many evenings with Ardenai Firstlord and the others.  They were prepared for violence.  If you did anything at all you shifted its focus, nothing more.  You are not to blame.”

“Then who is, do you suppose?”

“Sarkhan, perhaps, and he has paid.  I saw my stepfather’s knife go right through him.”  The boy shuddered, and rubbed at his arms.

“It is not pleasant to see someone die.  Even someone evil.  When we see someone who is good, and rational, kill someone who is violent and evil … things … seem upside down, do they not?”

“Um hm,” Jilfan replied, and drew a deep, sobbing breath.  “Ah’krill, I did not mean to panic.”

“No one means to panic, Jilfan.  It just happens.  It is the antithesis of self-control, and self-control can be learned.”

“I panicked,” he said stubbornly.  “I ran.  I am nearly a man … nearly as old as Gideon … and I ran.  My father was a warrior who died in battle.  My grandfather is a warrior.  My mother is a warrior … and I am a coward.”

“Perhaps it is just that you are not a warrior.  Gideon is four years your senior, and four years is a long time at your age, so do not be envious of Gideon.  Envy is corrosive.  The raising you have had, and the opportunities, have opened doors for you that Gideon may never see.”

“But he helped my mother.”

“What makes you think you cannot?” Ah’krill asked, studying the boy’s face in the dim light.  It was an Equi face, not Papilli, and for some reason, she found that comforting.

“How can I?  It is too late.”

“To help her as a warrior, yes.  But you, perhaps, are not a warrior.  Besides that, what can you offer?”

“Nothing she cannot get elsewhere,” Jilfan sighed.  “Not comfort, obviously, since it is I who receive it from you.  Not strength.  I saw her bleeding, and I ran.  The blood loss sickened me.”

“Then offer it back.  The blood.  She will need it.  Conditions are primitive here, and through your blood she may gain the strength she needs to live.  I have seen how my son looks at her.  Without her, he will not want to go on.  Without Ardenai, Gideon’s purpose will be lost.  Do you see?  You have only to give that which you are truly able to give, to perform the best service of all.  You need not fight.  You need only be who you are.”

Jilfan nodded and sat rubbing his face, still recovering from the harshness of his grief.  “I … will have to face them, Teal and the others, with where I have been, and what I have been doing while they were serving Equus and the Alliance.  That will be very difficult.”

“Yes,” Ah’krill agreed.  “Best accomplished quickly and without pretense, and left behind once and for all, I would say.”

“I agree,” he sighed.  “I thank you for your time, and your wisdom, Priestess.”

“And I thank you for hearing me.  Perhaps, we could spend more time together.  I am now your grandmother, you know.”

The boy grew round-eyed.  “Do you … think we could?  I would be much honored.”

“It is done.  Bear in mind, I am not here because I am the only one who cares about you.  They all care.  But they are all acting as warriors, with warrior’s concerns.  In that particular chain we are weak links, you and I.  That does not mean we do not have our own strength, our own place, our own function.  As a people we do not often make war, nor even think of war, and it will not be often that we will consider ourselves so out of place.  Soon, we will go home to life as we know it, and these days will be only a memory, a touchstone to the deeper parts of ourselves.”

“To the darker parts of ourselves,” Jilfan muttered.

“Those, too, we must know,” Ah’krill replied.  “Come, walk me to the house.  Tell me what you think of the wondrous order of things.”

^^^^^^^

Pythos turned from the stove with a fire-warmed blanket and moved quickly to the bed with it.  “It iss one of their few weaknesssess,” he said, tucking the cover around Ardenai.  “They do not retain their body heat as mosst hominoids do, thuss they are esspecially prone to sshock.  Much of their heat iss lost through their beautiful earss.”  He stroked the sides of the Equi’s head and said fondly, “I have never dessired anthropoid characteristicss beyond those which I already have, but … I would have liked earss.”

“These, especially,” Gideon said, nodding his assent and snugging in a corner of the blanket.  “He just doesn’t want to warm up, does he?”

“Perhapss I sshould not have bathed him,” Pythos fussed, “but …”

“Yes, you should have,” Gideon said firmly.  “You wouldn’t want him lying here in that blood-soaked uniform.  He reeked.  His sweat had turned the grime on him to mud.  He couldn’t possibly have rested comfortably or improved his health in that state.  Besides, the water is very warm.  It should have helped.  Now, Ah’nora said she was going to get some things together in the kitchen, and she’d be right here.  I can stay with Ardenai, and Doctor Moonsgold is right next door with Io, in case I need help.  Why don’t you go and get some rest?”

“Becausse I need to sspeak to Ardenai, and then to Ah’nora,” Pythos replied, using the tone that was a smile.  “Thee is no lesss tired than I, Gideon.  Thee needss to bathe, and change thy bloody clothess, and find thysself ssome food.  I sshall be along sshortly.”

Gideon looked at the physician, then back to Ardenai, his hands suddenly nervous as they brushed imaginary bits of lint from the blanket. “I suppose I should,” he said tentatively, “but I just hate to leave him, you know?”

“I do know,” Pythos said softly.  “I am going to leave Ah’nora in charge here, with very sspecific instructionss as to what sshe iss to do.  More can sshe do, than either of uss, my young friend.  Go ahead.  I’ll be along.  I promisse.”

Gideon nodded, rose, and bent to kiss the bloody scratch on Ardenai’s forehead.  “Please, don’t go anywhere without me,” he whispered.  He wiped at his eyes and was letting himself quietly out the door when Ah’nora came down the dimly lit hall carrying a tray with several things on it, and a leather bag slung over one arm.  She was dressed in the manner of her Amish neighbors, in a long-sleeved brown dress which brushed her ankles, and a creamy white muslin pinafore, her soft brown hair in a bun atop her head.  It made her look … efficient.  He smiled, held the door open for her, and then forced himself to close it.   She was a kind, competent, beautiful woman.  Pythos had faith in her.  Pythos loved Ardenai and would do nothing to harm him.  Ah’nora loved Ardenai.  It would be all right for Gideon to leave him.  He would be all right.  Things would be fine.  The Declivian finally forced himself to point his toes down the hall and take a few steps.

He walked one door down and looked in on Io, who was being tended by Winslow Moonsgold.  She looked like a discarded doll – her luxuriant hair dirty and tangled, her face marred with pain and sorrow.  Winnie gave him a bright smile and a thumbs-up like it was just another day of stitches and upset tummies, and Gideon let himself back out again.  There really wasn’t one damned thing he could do, no matter how much he wanted to change that.  He had become an observer.  A hungry one.  One that stank.  A little princcce musst not ssstink, he told himself, and walked resolutely down to the bathing pools, chuckling softly to himself, though for the life of him, he didn’t know what there was to laugh about.

Pythos’ instructions to Ah’nora were brief and to the point, ending with, “Do anything, anything, thee musst to keep him ssafe, comfortable, and in mind of who he iss,” the serpent hissed.  Exhaustion was making him agitated, and slightly more difficult than usual to understand.  “Do not let him ssleep too much.  In deep ssleep can be losss as well as healing.  Help him to eat ssomething.  Help him put the child in her placce.  Ssee that he rememberss that he iss Firstlord of Equuss, not a puling infant.  For exsssample, if the ssight of thy presssented breasssts makess him want to sssuckle rather than have intercourssse with thee, thou art doing ssomething wrong.  Change that. Indulge him.  Ssee he ssstayss a man.”

“I do understand,” she said, and her voice had a bit of an edge to it, though she blushed uncomfortably.  “Gideon explained things to me on the way back here, and I think he did a pretty good job.  Why don’t you let me see what I can do, Physician Pythos, and if I am not having enough success to suit you, we can discuss this further.”

“I sshall take that as a disssmisssal,” he said, flicked Ardenai gently with his tongue, and exited the room, leaving Ah’nora alone with the Firstlord.

She looked at the closed door awhile, shaking her head, and turned with a chuckle to further organize the things on the tray.  She had opened the chute to release more press-wood into the stove, and was watching the flames when a very rusty baritone said, “My dear and lovely Ah’nora,” and she turned to see tired green eyes and the ghost of a smile from the Firstlord.  “We do seem to take … advantage of you, don’t we?”

She came and sat next to him on the edge of the big, hand-carved bed, taking his hand into her lap and pushing his dark hair back from his face.  “How are you feeling?” she asked, looking into his eyes and giving him a gentle smile that was all concern.

“Much better than Pythos thinks,” he said, squeezing her hand.  “You must pardon him for his unfeeling words, my dear.  You are not an object to be used, and I ask your forgiveness.”

“He loves thee, and I am thine, Firstlord,” she replied, bending to kiss his forehead, “He is literally worried out of his mind.  He delivered you from the womb of your mother.  He delivered Io.  Only a few weeks ago he married you to her … and oh, he was so happy!  You should have seen him after you left on your wedding trip, laughing and dancing around on those short little legs of his, grabbing Teal for balance.  And now … Io lies near death, with her baby lost and maybe her fertility, and you …” She sighed and looked away a moment to regain herself.  When she looked back, there were tears standing in Ardenai’s eyes.

“I should have sent her away,” he whispered.  “I should have sent her away like I did you.”

“Don’t be silly.  She would not have gone, and you know it.  She is Captain of the Horse Guard of the Great House of Equus.  You would have demeaned her by putting your marriage ahead of her responsibilities.  She would have been incredibly angry with you.”

“And now … she’s going to hate me anyway,” he sighed.  “I just … want to be with her instead of in here.  I don’t know why Pythos had to separate us.”

“Now I see what Pythos means,” Ah’nora said in a gently scolding tone.  “You are scaring him with the possibility that your daughter will take over your consciousness, and all of a sudden you sound like a child.”

“Point taken, Mistress,” snapped the Firstlord, and Ah’nora blushed, though her gaze didn’t waver.  Ardenai took a deep, steadying breath, and patted her hand in apology.  “He has forgotten that controlling, comforting, teaching tiny, frightened children was my life for many, many years.  I suppose that’s good.  It becomes tiresome when people always expect our very best from us.  Some days, we are not capable of giving it.”  His face twisted with pain and he bit his lip, pulling his other hand across his middle.

“Did he give you something for pain?”

“No.  He thought it best not to … how did he put it … distort my perception any more than it was already distorted by the presence of my daughter.”

“I have some tea that will help with the cramping, but first we must get you swallowing properly again.  Gideon says you can’t keep water down?”

“Not even water.  At least I couldn’t a while ago.”

“Water can be harder than you think to swallow. Let’s try some small pieces of sugar melon.  Crush them with your teeth a little, and let them slide down your throat.   They’re mostly water anyway, but this will be a little more substantial, and the sugar can be soothing to the stomach.”

She gave him a small bite of the melon.  He worked his jaw carefully, then swallowed and took a deep breath.  “Better,” he said, closing his eyes.

“Well, don’t go to sleep on me just yet,” she grinned.  “A few more bites of this, and perhaps a couple sips of tea first.”

“Trust me, I have no intention of going back to sleep until I get some answers,” he said.

She used pillows to sit him up straighter, and they went about it slowly.  Between bites, Ah’nora gently massaged his neck and shoulders to help him relax, and some of the tension in his jaw began to ebb away. “Pythos is concerned that with the baby being so young, her inability to swallow is keeping you from swallowing, as well,” she said.  “He is also concerned that she does not know how to breathe.”

“He has always referred to me as his baby,” Ardenai muttered, closing his eyes and relaxing into the pillows, “but after a hundred years he should at least give me credit for being able to out-think one.”

“She’s not giving you any …trouble, then?”

“No.  I don’t think so.  Right at the beginning, when I was getting Io’s panic along with hers, it was a little scary, but she is … was … is … very tiny, and still very sleepy, poor little thing.  Her mother must be devastated.”

He squeezed his eyes shut for a few moments, gathering strength, and opened them again as the door crept open.  Jilfan’s scared, boyish face appeared around the corner.  “Come,” Ardenai said, and the boy shuffled in.  “Sit.”

The boy sat, shifting uncomfortably, sensing the blackness of the Firstlord’s mood.

“Have you seen your mother?” asked Ardenai.

“Yes,” Jilfan sighed.  “They wouldn’t let me stay.  Doctor Moonsgold says she is resting.  I told Pythos I would give her some of my blood.  How are you?”

“Alive,” Ardenai replied.  “How are you?”

“Ashamed, I ran.  You know that.”

“No,” Ardenai replied, glancing over at him in the lamplight.  “I did not know.  I have had other concerns.  I was aware that you were not with your mother.”

“Do you think she will forgive me?”

“I do not think she will blame you in the first place.  She has seen grown men panic in battles that were planned.  Surely a boy can run from an ambush.”

“I had not thought myself a boy,” Jilfan muttered.

“You were wrong.  You are a boy,” Ardenai said, gazing into the flames in the stove.  “Because your assessment of yourself was in error, your expectations regarding your performance, were unrealistic.”

“Not true,” Jilfan said quietly.  “I expected courage from myself because I have a collective history of courage in my family.  I disappoint them.  I disappoint myself.  I have explained that to Teal and the others.  I explain it to you, not because I expect your forgiveness, but so you will not believe your wife raised a coward – that your old friend, Abeyan, fosters cowardice.  What I am, I am.”

Ardenai sighed, pulling his eyes away from the fire to glance first at Ah’nora, who was pouring tea, then at Jilfan.  “This has been a strange time, has it not?  A time totally unlike what we are used to, and we are disappointed that we have not handled it well.  We should be amazed that we have handled it at all.”

Ah’nora brought the tea, offering a cup to Jilfan, who took it gratefully and thanked her, and then a cup to Ardenai.  She stayed long enough to make sure he had a good hold on it, then excused herself, and slipped from the room to do other things for a bit.

Ardenai sipped slowly and carefully at his drink, noting that it was medicinal instead of the usual, fragrant orange peel and cinnamon which Jilfan had been given.  He blew on it a little, and adjusted the warm cup in his hands.  “I did not see you run away today, but I did see other things.  I saw people who knew what they were doing – Konik, Teal, your mother – Daleth and Tarpan.  Then I saw those of us who were trying to do what we thought best despite being out of our element.  But mostly, one man’s actions stand out in my mind.” He sighed, leaning his head back against the pillows.   “This man, I would have sworn I knew well,” he said. “As you know Jilfan, or think you do, so I know him.  And yet, I saw him kill a man today, not out of duty as one would kill an enemy of the state, but in fury, and in hatred, and he gloated in the face of death.  I heard this man – this diplomat who has represented Equus at the opening of whole new worlds – this man to whom parents entrust their babes … I heard him scream in anger.  I felt him use his strength for immoral and unreasonable purposes, and I wondered, could he have done what he had to do, without the anger?  Was it him believing himself to be something he is not, who caused the lady to lie as she does, with her baby dead?”

There was a silence.  Then Jilfan asked, “Why was there a settled woman on a field of battle?”

“Something she will wrestle with the rest of her life.  Was it misjudgment on her part, or someone else’s?  Perhaps, she was counting on her husband to protect her, which he did not.” Ardenai sighed.  “Jilfan, this is not simple.  To try and make it so, is unrealistic.  This was mounted and accomplished with the necessity of great confusion and emotion.  It must be evaluated in the same manner or we are making irrational and unlike comparisons.  Do you understand?”

“Yes,” he said quietly, looking into his cup.  “I understand at least that it is neither logical nor simple.  May I then also assume that the conclusions I draw, and the decisions I make may be emotional?”

“I know mine will be.  I have discovered, though, that emotion can be a harsh master, and sinister.  I would ask that you be gentle with yourself, and do not shoulder more of the responsibility than is your portion.  Most of it – all of it, actually – is mine.  I have been lying here these hours, and with the clarity of hindsight, I have seen a dozen ways, a hundred, a thousand I could have accomplished this without the loss of life.”

“Name one,” Jilfan demanded softly, and dared to meet Ardenai’s eyes.  Ardenai glared at him a moment, then snorted softly and looked away.  “Take your own advice, Dragonhorse.  Do not shoulder more than is yours to carry, nor too soon, before you can straighten up under it.  Do you know where I have been, besides weeping in the horse barn?”

“No,” Ardenai replied, and he was beginning to smile a little.  “Tell me.”

“I have been sitting in the straw with she who leads the prayers of Equus, listening to her agonize over the possibility that what happened was her fault.  Now I hear it from you.  If my mother lives, I shall hear it from her.”

“Io will live,” Ardenai said quietly.  “I have told her she has to.  We both know she would not dare cross me.”

“Do not grieve,” Jilfan whispered, his hand closing over Ardenai’s forearm.  “It is unnecessary, and inappropriate.  Your wife yet lives.”

“And for her I do not grieve quite so much,” Ardenai replied.  “But for the one perfectly innocent person involved in all this.  Our daughter.  Your sister.”

“Ardenai …” Jilfan shook his head, having no words with which to respond.

Ardenai could smell the dregs of the tea in the boy’s cup, orange peel and cinnamon, and remembered this night he had spoken of, when they would get together and celebrate their victory.  How naive to assume it could be had at no cost.  This night … when they would announce to their friends that they were expecting a baby daughter.  He felt tears on his face, and realized that part of him would weep forever.  “Jilfan,” he said, wiping at his eyes and shaking his head to clear it, “I need a boon of thee.”

“Of course,” the boy responded, and rose from where he was sitting.

“Go find Teal, Tarpan and Daleth, Keats, Moonsgold, Gideon and Marion … let Pythos sleep.  And find Kehailan.  Tell them I wish to speak with all of them … in here … in thirty minutes.  Can you do that?”

“Yes, Ardenai Firstlord, I can do that,” Jilfan said, and was gone.

The Equi pulled his knees up, wrapped his arms around them, and slumped forward.  Almost, the conversation had been too much for him.  He was hungry, but too tired to want anything, and, truth be told, too weak to look for anything which Ah’nora might have left.  He was half dozing when a pair of large, strong hands closed over his shoulders and someone kissed the top of his head.

“I am very, very sorry about your baby,” Gideon whispered close to Ardenai’s ear, and gave him another gentle kiss.  He sat down beside the Equi, holding a small bowl with a spoon resting in it.  “This is warm buckwheat cereal with honey in it.  Ah’nora wants you to try it.”

“Well,” Ardenai said, “I have two choices here.  I can eat this, and probably throw it up, or I can just throw it against the wall and be done with it.”

“Remember what you told that slaver?  You told him you won me in a poker game.  I say what the hell, gamble.  Eat it.  At least if it stays down you’ll feel like you’ve accomplished one thing today.”

Ardenai looked at Gideon out of the corner of his eye.  Gideon looked back and gave the Equi a gentle elbow.  “Might find you a nicccce Declivian tree toad insssstead,” he hissed.

Ardenai burst out laughing, and even as he laughed two big tears ran down his cheeks.  “Oh, Gideon,” he managed, wiping his face with the palms of his hands for what seemed the hundredth time, “Oh, Gideon, what a mess.  What a kraaling mess this is.”

“How many people have you asked?” Gideon retorted, held him tight, and let him cry for a minute or so, enough to loosen the knot in his chest.  “Equus lives. You live, and Sarkhan is dead.  Isn’t that what this was all about in the first place?  I’ll bet if you’d admit it, you haven’t asked anybody.  Oh, you’ve talked to Keats – medicine’s answer to the insufferable ass.  And I saw Jilfan come out of your room, so I assume you’ve talked to a panic stricken thirteen-year-old.  He started sweating the second those men rode out of the trees, and within two minutes his perception was one hundred percent gone.  He stayed, because his horse stayed.  I say that not in contempt, but in realization.  Save his heart; give him a computator.  Io, who could tell you what really happened was doing one thing, and one thing only, that most proper task of trying to save your daughter.  Those two agonized female minds are the only other things you’ve touched.  You want to know what happened out there?  Me too.  Eat your cereal and then I’ll go get Teal.  Flaying yourself with introspection will avail you nothing.”

Ardenai looked at him in amazement, and not for the first time.  Amazing young man.  “Who are you, really?” he asked.  “What incarnation of pure intellect?  And how do you manage to get inside my head like you do?”

“I love you too much to be afraid of what I’ll find, so I just crawl in through your eyes,” Gideon chuckled.  “Please eat some of that.  You are all the positive things I’ve never had.  You are critic, teacher, and friend.  You are father, mother, Paraclete, sibling.  I ask instead, who sent you to me?  El’Shadai heard my prayer for someone, one someone, to take the place of all the people I would never have.  Ardenai, I will never marry.  I do not function.  Not as husband, not as father. What you did by accident, or so rumor has it, I can only dream of doing.  What you had for a few moments in your daughter, have now in Kehailan, and will have again, many, many times over, I’ll never have at all, even once.  Can you understand?”

Ardenai nodded, ate what he could, and handed the bowl back to Gideon.  “I hope you are planning a career in teaching, or in the diplomatic corps,” he said.  He studied the boy for a moment, nodded, half to himself, and went on speaking.  “It is what thy father wishes for thee, though thy grandsire will try to make a farmer of thee.  We are about to be visited by our companions.  Open the door, and gather some chairs and cushions, will you?”

Gideon was glad of the immediate task; it gave him time to process the words, thy father, thy grandsire.  Had he heard it right?  Was Ardenai so tired and grief stricken that he was speaking out of his head?  Was Pythos’ worst fear coming to pass?  Had the baby taken over Ardenai’s conscious mind?  Thy father … thy grandsire…. though they might be a mistaken tune, their refrain rang sweetly in his head as he hurried to arrange the room.

As he opened the door, Teal’s voice, usually as graceful and airborne as his name implied, fell heavily on their ears as he came down the hall.  “You’re a Terren.  You cannot possibly understand the grief in Ardenai’s mind just now.  We Equi … treasure our young.  To us, the loss of a child is the ultimate tragedy.”

“That, was not a child,” Keats said reasonably.  “It was a thumbnail sized glob of cells.  For a man who has hardly given Junior here the time of day for years, it’s a ludicrous reaction.”

“Now, Hadrian, nobody’s going to agree with that,” Marion said.  “The story you’re bringing up, and which I think you’re vastly overstating, has two sides and two participants. The wee one had no say.”

“A very human reaction, and one I’d expect from you, Marion.  You’re a sentimental slob.  But from Ardenai?  Given the momentous events of the day, and his part in them – for Godssake, he literally cut Sarkhan’s heart in half with that knife …”

“It was his daughter,” Kehailan said.  “We Equi sense our children, their sex, their personalities, within seconds of conception.  That baby was as much herself today as she will be a hundred years from now.”

“Ludicrous,” Keats snapped.

“No,” Teal said hotly.  “It is not.  The knowledge she would have gained, that part of her was not there.  But who she was, the spirit she was granted upon conception, entered with Ardenai to grow with Io.  ” He realized the door was open, and dropped his voice.  Keats did not.

“Alright, who was she?” Keats drawled, “What was she like?”

“A beauty,” Ardenai said.  “Gentlemen, do come in.  I’m sorry to have to meet with you from the depths of this bed, but since my muscles have turned to water and my legs have declared themselves sovereign islands, this is how it must be.”

“We are sorry if we have disturbed you with our conversation, Beloved,” Teal said, kissing Ardenai lingeringly on the temple before seating himself on the floor near the fire.  “We were having a philosophical discussion.”

“About my daughter.”

“Yes,” Teal smiled.  “Not many men are as fortunate as you have been.  Will you tell us about her?”

“Of course,” Ardenai nodded, and motioned Moonsgold, who had opened the adjoining door, to sit.  “Leave it open.  We will be quiet about this.”  He closed his eyes and let himself relax a moment, then opened them and said, “She would have been attractive, and pleasant of nature.  Her capacity to learn was good, to discern, excellent.  She had big eyes like Io, but green, like mine.  Dark hair.  A classic Equi female.  She would have had neither her mother’s diminutive stature, nor delicate features, though she was graced with her father’s ears and her mother’s nose.  She would have been tall. Able, nearly, to look her brothers in the eye.  Slender, long legged, like her father.  More like me than Io, both in physical appearance and personality, but comelier of features, and more refined.  A tragic loss to my home world, my household, and my heart.”

“Pardon me for intruding on the moment,” Keats said, “but how do you know all that?  Or do you just want to know it.”

“I know,” Ardenai replied, tapping his forehead, “Because I have my daughter’s entat, her living … essence, I suppose you would call it; that part of her which would have been her thinking and feeling mind.  And, from the coordination problems I’m having at the moment, I think she’s trying to assert her right-handed motor skills, as well.  She and I will share my mind from this day forward, though she will ultimately find her place mostly in my subconscious.”

“May the change be a pleasant one,” Tarpan said.  “And uplifting. It is most certainly unique.”

“Because she has learned so little, my capacity has been greatly expanded,” Ardenai said.  “Through her, I can better serve my people, and she will have purpose, as she was meant to.”

“And do we know whose arrow struck her mother?” Gideon asked.

“Sarkhan’s,” Daleth replied.  “It was his first arrow which struck her, and it was not meant for her, but for you, Gideon, as you rode to save Ah’krill.  As you leaned over your horse’s neck to clear Ardenai, the arrow passed behind you and struck the captain.  Sarkhan nocked another bolt and hit Konik as he turned around.  In the moments following, he fell to the Firstlord’s good left hand.”

“That,” Timothy McGill said, “The flight of that forearm blade, was the most spectacular throw I’ve ever seen.  For the power behind it – the dust, the blood in your eyes – it went as true, no curve, no wobble, as it could possibly have gone.  I have known you through Kee for many years, Firstlord, and because I know what you have tried to accomplish as a diplomat and educator, I hesitate to compliment you as a fighter.  Nevertheless, I do so.  If it is inappropriate, forgive me.”

“Well spoken,” Tarpan said.  “I add my commendation.  You did well.  Your manipulation of Sarkhan at the outset, is what won the day.  By Sarkhan’s pledge to the honor of the Wind Warriors, Konik was bound to do what he did.  Because you showed Konik mercy, he was able to do what he did.”

“Mercy?” Moonsgold echoed.

“Of course,” Teal said.  “Konik was watching Sarkhan, not Ardenai.  He wasn’t planning to win, or even to fight past pretense.  Ardenai could have killed him at any moment, but he chose not to.  He did what a scholar would do, he observed, and by observing, he saved the day.”

“By offering himsself without hesssitation, even in a ssituation he knew logically he wass not equipped to handle, he ssaved our Io, and wass rewarded with the esssence of hiss child,” Pythos hissed from the doorway where he stood with Ah’nora, taking in the room with a collective glare.  “What a sshame that he iss sso crazed when it comess to matterss of hiss health that hiss nursse cannot even leave to refressh hersself and eat ssome dinner, without him filling the room with warriorss and talk of war, when he sshould be filling hiss head with meditation and ssleep.”

“Sir Pent is upon us, flee for your lives,” Ardenai muttered, and the old physician writhed with displeasure.

“Thee knows how I desspise that nickname!”

“Of course I do.  That is why I use it.  That is why I gave it to you, and will see to it that my sons continue it …” Ardenai trailed off, and the good humor faded from his eyes.

“Ssuddenly sso ssad?” Pythos asked, coiling gracefully onto the floor near the fire.

“I am High Equi.  In all probability I will outlive Kehailan and Gideon both, perhaps even Jilfan.  Not a pleasant thought for a father to have.”  Ardenai stopped, shook his head and looked at the others in the room with some puzzlement.  “Forgive me.  That was an odd thing to say, wasn’t it?”

“It wass … feminine,” Pythos said with what passed for a wicked smile.  “There iss yet a ssmall, red-gold moth fluttering at the cornerss of thy mind, and for all time, the little caterpillar will munch away at thy highly touted massculinity.”

“Do not gloat,” Ardenai said firmly.  “You could as well have been the companion of her entat, and indeed already share your mind with many just like her.”

“Yess, but I am both a male, and a female to begin with, sso I do not find it dissquieting.”

“You’re what?” Keats exclaimed, and Pythos hissed with delight.

“Again hiss mind topplesss from the narrow sshelf where he sstoress it!  Come, Doctor Keatss, Come, Doctor Moonssgold, let uss check on our patientss, and I will let thee assk me quesstionss.  And as for thee, Ardenai Firsstlord, thiss meeting could have waited upon thy sstrength a little.  Assk what thee musst to allow thysself to ssleep, and then do sso, or ssteps will be taken to ssee that thee ssleeps – on my termss.”

Pythos uncurled off the floor, gestured ahead of himself toward the door, and they would have exited, but Ardenai’s voice stayed them.  “Physician, I would at least know, before you leave us, the condition of the wounded.”

The old serpent turned back with a gracious nod.  “As thee wisshes, Firsstlord.  Legate Konik losst a great deal of blood, and hiss breasst-bone wass broken … pusshed from the back through the flessh of his chesst, which tore the musscle and expossed the bone.   He iss not yet conssciouss, but I have every reasson to think he will recover, thankss to Doctor Keatss.  The lady Io … will quite possibly need repair work done when we return to Equuss, but sshe, too, hass a very good chancce of recovery … given enough time and willpower.”

“Thank you,” Ardenai murmured, and the doctor took his leave, flashing a brief but meaningful glare at Teal and the others who lingered behind.

“There were three Telenir deaths,” Teal said.  “Sarkhan, the sniper Konik dispatched, and one other, who would have put an arrow in your back.  Him, I killed myself.  The others, finding themselves against overwhelming odds, surrendered their weapons.”

“Where … did all that cavalry come from?” Ardenai murmured.  “The earth shook, the trees came alive; they seemed to rise from the very dust.”

Teal chuckled.  “Many, many Equi live here, Dragonhorse.  They inhabit hold and keep, cot and countryside.  Your wife sent word to them that the militia was needed. She drilled with them at night to re-sharpen their skills, and set them in reserve.  Because we had no way of knowing how this would go, and because she wanted to take no chances with the conflagration escalating, or with some of Sarkhan’s forces escaping to infiltrate South Hold and the surrounding area, she stationed them on the perimeter in a series of ever-larger concentric circles.  It was the tightest circle which rode to our aid in those moments of battle.”

“I see,” Ardenai mused, one corner of his mouth turning up in a smile.  “My wife is more cunning than even I imagined her to be.  She knew I’d object.  She knew I’d insist on a level playing field.  So … tell me, have our prisoners said anything?  Are they Telenir, or are they Equi?  This was far too easy.  This was a distraction, not a battle.  Sarkhan may have thought he knew who he was and what his purpose was, but he did not.  My mother is absolutely right in her thinking.  He was, quite simply, barking mad.  The danger lies elsewhere, and it may well be watching what goes on here.  Tell me what you know.”

“What I know,” Teal said quietly, “is that Ah’nora summoned us here to help soothe your thoughts, no more.  We promised we would not stay long.  Strategy is for another day, brother mine.”

The Firstlord looked puzzled.  “Ah’nora … summoned you?”

“Yes,” Tarpan replied.  “And then Jilfan summoned us, as well.  Apparently you and Ah’nora shared a common thought, Ardenai.”

“Yes, we did,” Ardenai said, and smiled, holding out a hand to the young woman.  “And we share more than that.”  When she had come to sit next to him, he said, “In the days before Sarkhan’s arrival, when things were unsettled and it seemed a possibility that the Firstlord of Equus might perish on the field of honor, it was decided that a High Equi prince should be conceived as a hedge against the loss of those genes.  Our dear and beautiful Ah’nora was approached, and graciously consented to bear me a son, though she had no time to prepare herself, and little time to consider the consequences.  If indeed this has been a time of heroes, in the actions of this woman, I offer you yet another.”

She blushed, and momentarily dropped her head, then raised it, and smiled at the room with proud and shining eyes as they hailed her.  Ardenai, looking at her in profile, realized how strong she was, and how truly beautiful.  A worthy woman.  And he wondered … if he had known her better, sooner … would he have chosen her over Io to be his Primuxori?  Was this then to be his fate, to lust after every attractive woman he met – to want to bed – to impregnate every woman he met?  Was this what it meant to be The Thirteenth Dragonhorse?

“Have you decided what you will name the child?” he asked, mentally giving himself a shake.

“I have two names which please me,” she said.  “Krush, for your father, or Rustem, for mine.  I cannot choose.”

“Then you need another babe added to your womb before it is too late.  Twin foals for the Firstlord,” Kehailan said, rising with a wink.  “Sire, we will take our leave so you may rest.  If anything changes, if anything develops, we will waken you.  You have my word.”

His voice was cheerful, but Ardenai sensed the terrible pain in his words, the knowledge that he was to be replaced over and over and over, that the joy of many sons would cast him forever in the shadows.  He wanted to comfort him, to tell him that his suppositions were not true, but he was too tired, and tired, too, of having to constantly reassure Kehailan as though he were a Creppia Nonage babe.  I can only prepare a place for him and tell him it is there. I cannot make him believe me, nor can I make him take it.

When they had all gone and he was alone with Ah’nora, he allowed himself to relax against the pillows – really relax – and contemplate her as she moved gracefully about, gathering up cushions and putting the room to rights.  As tired as he was, there was a tugging in his loins which told him he wanted her – not just the emotional and physical release of ejaculation – but her, as a person.  Right now, he could enjoy being in bed with her, face to face with her, kissing her lips and caressing her breasts, and speaking softly of intimate things.  To his amused edification, it was a comforting thought.  It comforted him to know that this young woman who carried his son had been more than a means to an end.  That, had she been chosen as Firstwife, he could have learned to love her.  But, he sighed, letting his eyes close, it was self-willed, quirky little Io whom he had chosen.  It was fragile, intelligent Io whom he loved.  And, as he drifted off to sleep, it was his beautiful, beloved Io for whom he wept silent, desperate tear

…C

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